News from Erewhon vs. Computer-Generated Text

In News from Erewhon, we used techniques of free-association and constraints to try to mine the human unconscious so as to generate unusual texts. These techniques come from the Surrealists and are in some ways exactly the opposite idea from computer-generated text. The French Surrealists, as well as some Romantics and Parnassians, were almost in awe of the power of human imagination and would go to heroic lengths to liberate that imagination. Rimbaud (not a member of these movements but contemporary with them and inspired by them) was particularly known for this: He used sleep deprivation, drugs and alcohol, and other drastic methods to aim at “le déreglement de tous les sens" ("the un-tuning of all the senses") that would reveal the poetry hidden in his brain even if it destroyed him in the process.

These psychological techniques are quite different from the rather safe and sterile procedure of writing computer programs that produce texts, even if both methods yield nonsense of a possibly similar nature. We do not look down on computer generated text (indeed our Oulipoems has a tool for generating text) but we do think that the idea of writing a complex program for the purpose of generating real literature is a dead end. Even if it were possible to create a program that could make truly great literature (and it is not given the current state of research in Natural Language Processing and Stylistics) it would not be desirable, in the same way there is no point in making a robot that can enjoy food for us or appreciate classical music. We would just be robbing ourselves of the joy of writing.

On the other hand, I see significant potential in human-machine collaboration, in which computers use large datasets and randomized algorithms to make suggestions to human writers, much as the prompting keywords in Erewhon do. In that usage, we are not replacing the author with a machine, but rather supplying the author with a tool that is technically advanced but functions like a fancy thesaurus or reference library.

— Millie Niss

25 October 2009 poety text generative millie