[-empyre-] What is robot poetics? How/why should we teach it?

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Thu May 4 22:00:48 AEST 2017

Hi, some thoughts on the topic - and thanks, SUSAN! -

Like many others on empyre, I've been following this discussion with 
interest. I want to point out that digital poetics in any form is part of 
a field, and at least for me, both canon and genre obstruct our view and 
thinking. So here are a number of counter-examples; these are legion.

Newsgroups: News groups were incredibly creative, both passively and 
actively in their audiences and participants. In 1996 for example, there 
was a group alt.adjective.noun.verb.verb.verb; in order to post, one had 
to present one's writing in this format. The FAQ is at 
http://www.faqs.org/faqs/verb-verb-verb/ . The FAQ begins:
alt.responsible.<robert at astro.su.se>.email.request.send

(1) alt.curious.format.originate.begin.enquire?


There were groups such as alt.society.neutopia that led to FAQs in the 
form of "Neutopian FAQ-like Substance" - see 
which is part of a complex pseudo-religious mythology written across list 
posts and groupings.

There were newsgroups you couldn't post in, unless you literally could 
hack your way into them; in other words, you had to engage the groups on 
the level of protocol in order to access.

All of this work has been documented (there were hundreds of thousands of 
groups by the way); the group mores, activities, codes, codework, etc. 
were amazingly creative; things ranged from bots to texts to messing with 
the software itself to poetries and poetics; there were also cross- 
postings etc.

IRC - Internet Relay Chat - was an excellent platform based on UDP (which 
created netsplits that could be used for poetics as well); again the 
creativity was amazing. But the creativity here rolled across your screen 
at highspeed; it wasn't archived, but was always on the fly. You could do 
(and I did) intrusions into various channels and record them of course; in 
a sense you creative a kind of running interference within the social body 
of the channel (or you open up your own channel) that could lead to 
amazing imminent results. Zen-like, most of what occurred lived only on 
the edge of memory. IRC still works. Much of what went on was sexual, but 
there was also a great deal of 'hackerese' at work as if Mez were speaking 
at high speed.

Speaking of which, there was Integer/Antiorp/Netochka Nezvanova - see 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netochka_Nezvanova_(author) for more 
information; she/they should be at the top of anyone's list here. Florian 
Cramer created a perl program I've (and others) have used based on her 
leet - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leet ; we should all know about this 
(Sandy Baldwin has written on it).

There were and still are, mostly unused, MOOs, MUDs, talkers, and other 
live forms of programmable environments; I (and others) haven written into 
these, creating spaces for conversation/building/botting, etc. You can 
find a lot of information on Wikipedia. These relate to scripting in 
virtual worlds - and scripting itself becomes a kind of ro/botics; Second 
Life objects can perform, spew texts, etc.; Garrett Lynch had a program 
which allows live conversation to be mapped onto objects.

EMACs, the linux text editor, has one of the earliest implementations of 
the Eliza bot program; it's not all that difficult to go into the lisp 
code and modify Eliza to do just about anything - literatures emerge and 
others can create within the framework.

It's also easy to go into interactive fiction such as Adventure itself - 
see https://nickm.com/twisty/ for Nick Montfort's book - and modify the 
fiction in any number of ways. The programming has some interesting 
philosophical implications (check out the dungeons for example).

Again, I want to stress, that all of this has been used by, creative by, 
described by, etc. by, people who for the most part are _non-canonic,_ 
_genre-bending,_ etc. etc. So when we go back over and over again to the 
canon, we do a disservice to the fact that we're dealing with field 
phenomena, not stars and particular work. We need in other words something 
like a literary field theory, not the usual classical physics with its 
emphasis on well-defined particulate mechanisms.

To continue - there's also griefing in virtual worlds; my favorite in 
Second Life is a 'magic pencil' that, as its moved through space, leaves 
behind a trail of objects (all of which is programmable of course, 
including the objects); make a big enough 'structure,' and you're going to 
bring the sim to a halt as the number of generated prims goes sky-high. 
The result is astonishing.

There are somatic aspects to all of this as well; you might design a bot 
for example to imitate Emily Dickinson on one or another level - but she 
was a mind and body writing, and that connects her poetry in an imminent 
way to the poetics of chant, speech, song, phenomenology of meaning, 
flesh, tissue, neuron, habitus, etc. I'd argue it's that which gives it 
meaning - which brings up Wikileaks etc. - because hacking is, in a way, 
an inversion of the body - a poetics of penetration from the outside (I 
don't necessarily mean this in any sense as a sexual metaphor btw) - an 
inverted bot retrieving its dictionary and semantics to the surface. I 
argue this should be included in any course on robopoetics, digital 
poetics, etc. (As should the rules, written and unwritten, for Facebook 
and other social media - rules which shape, censor, expand dialog and so 

Along with this, I'd bring issues of email lists themselves, with their 
trolls, fabrications, splits, coalescences, etc.; the best accounting I've 
seen in Jon Marshall's Living on Cybermind, 
, which is an ethnographic description of an email list started (still 
running) in 1994 by Michael Current and myself; he died shortly after the 
list was launched, and the book covers that, as well as trolling by a 
number of people/groups. Again, there are somatic issues at work here.

Finally, from my viewpoint, there's a general field of codework - which 
can I think be traced back to 19th-century telegraph operators, and their 
codings/decodings, subversions during spare-time at the keys. A lot has 
been written about this of course.

A lot has been written about all of this; the amount of information is 
overwhelming - just take, for example LambdaMOO, 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LambdaMOO - which would need a course by 
itself just to cover the basics and history.

The problem is that all of the above goes way back (I've known people who 
were hacking online around 1972 for example); the practices are fields of 
practice, the audiences are dispersed, and, for me, the very use of genre 
and canon as a viable pedagogical approach is problematic. There has to be 
another way to deal with all of this, without going through the usual star 
system. It's interesting that Furtherfield/Netbehaviour - in their 
approach to blockchain work for example - seems, to me, broad in this 

And I do want to emphasize I'm not writing about the 'good old days' but 
about a revolution of writing/speaking/somatic approaches itself. First, 
thinking about fields creates a whole different kind of approach (reminds 
me of Dwarf Fortress for example); and second, pretty much all of the 
above continues today in one or another form; these formats haven't gone 

(I do realize I'm just touching the surface here; that most empyreans 
already know this, etc.; I'm just trying to think, for myself at least, 
across object-lessons into waves and shape-riding, where the shapes 
themselves are riders.)

Thanks for your patience, Alan

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