We’ve always been a little bit obsessed with this idea of The Future. Pop culture held the sealed envelope up to its head and promised us things like self-lacing shoes, flying cars, and hoverboards (actually, you have to wonder how much of this tech progression is us just racing to fully-realise the imaginations of the Back to the Future prop team). Impossible to ignore in this rich spread of future fancy was the ever-presence of some sort of robot figure, designed to serve its human overlords/friends. With a few notable exceptions such as Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, these robots almost always manifested as physical and tangible beings – consider Rosie from The Jetsons; C3PO and R2D2 from the underground indie gem Star Wars; even whatever the heck was going on with Robin Williams’ robot servant in Bicentennial Man. We expected The Future and its many wondrous products to come with a certain solidity – a physical symbol of stability and technological progression wrapped up in a shiny, animated package.
It’s interesting to note how society since then has evolved into a less-is-more mentality, especially when it comes to tech. We go paperless, we want the slimmest phones to fit in the slimmest pockets of our slimmest jeans, and we want our robots disembodied, please and thanks (unless it’s DJ Roomba). My only memory of bots from the pre-2000s era that somewhat hit the nail on where we were headed is limited to Willow’s demon computer boyfriend in an extremely early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I Robot, You Jane for those of you playing at home).
The 2017-era understanding of (ro)bots seems to overwhelmingly be that of a two-way conversational relationship between user and machine, usually where the user gets a sense of gain at the end of the interaction, whether it be figuring out what else that guy from that movie was in, or where to go for dinner, or when the next train will be. Personal assistants such as Siri are now expected features of any personal device, and recent additions to the bot lineup such as Google Assistant and the Amazon Echo are furthering our expectations for the sophistication of these tools where machine intelligence and human convenience intersect in a happy sunset freeze-frame.
These personal assistant bots push the now-common understanding of bots as tools for convenience – doing the gritty work for us and making information-gathering easier. But what about when a bot quits its job, starts a Philosophy degree, and gives the impression it might be one breath away from starting an ill-advised debate about the plot of The Matrix?
the night is long
a thrown-away letter
— poem.exe (@poem_exe) March 26, 2017
Poetry bots offer a completely different side of the conversational commerce bot coin. Instead of presenting themselves as assistants, salesbots, or tools for information-gathering, they exist as relatively one-sided beings, to explore notions related to creative expression and modes of production.
The poems produced by @poem_exe, brought into this world by developer Liam Cooke, use the Oulipo technique of production, creating “a workshop of potential literature” wherein art is produced under literary bondage. Applying a pre-existing format and structure, especially a rigid one, affords the programmer a strict ruleset to follow when developing a language-based sketch bot. The result presents an unfamiliar, otherworldly construction of language conveyed for the average user – perfect for poetry. The pieces produced by @poem_exe are ever-changing vessels for meaning. Structurally, they resemble the more universally-familiar haiku, and their imagery contains notions that are at once staccato and trailing off. The result is a sense of unknowability, a magic that cannot be revealed; the meaning belonging to the user and the user alone.
Poetry itself has grown to contain some odd connotations of impossibility and otherworldly-ness. There seems to be an assumption among non-poetry readers that poetry is inaccessible, containing meanings impossible for the average reader to parse. These Twitter pieces are author-less – they are disembodied strings of a pre-defined vocabulary set to a pacing rule. They’re essentially nonsense. It completely shifts the power dynamic between author/creator and the user. Any meaning derived from the pieces, considering their inherently intent-less nature, is at the hands of the reader. This is provides stark opposition to other user-facing bots or digital assistants, adopting personalities and, occasionally, faces. Poetry bots are not built for conversation, or any two-way interaction between themselves and their users. Perhaps the ultimate value these bots is their serving as an accessible entry point to poetry for the “every person” – taking the words at face-value and attributing your own meaning. Even the act of hosting these bots on Twitter is somewhat radical – they exist in a public space, and are for everyone.
don’t cry, insects
in this upside-down world
— poem.exe (@poem_exe) March 8, 2017
Poetry bots offer a unique alternative to the human-serving bots we’ve grown accustomed to. By putting these pieces out into the world like endless sketches, they serve as a compelling alternative to the traditional relationship between author and user, allowing the user full authority over any meaning derived. Endless sketching, endless meanings, and endless possibilities, opening the floodgates to a completely new and exciting mode of creative production.