Botnik vs Harry Potter

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“I’m Harry Potter!” Harry began yelling. “The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!”

When we last wrote about computer algorithms producing works of creative writing, we were talking slightly off-kilter poetry from the ‘mind’ of a program called OGDEN. Now we’re back on the topic again – only this time we’ve abandoned poetry in favour of Harry Potter; the greatest selling book franchise of all time.

Less an advanced computer algorithm and more a simple predictive text keyboard, Botnik describes itself as “a community of writers, artists and developers collaborating with machines to create strange new things.”

In their latest project, the team behind Botnik fed the machine the entire volume of seven Harry Potter novels, and then asked it to come up with a new chapter for the franchise.

The result really is quite something. Titled, Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash, you can read the latest chapter of Potter and co online (which you should do right now).

To give you a flavour of what’s in store, check out the first two pages below:

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What seems so glorious about this endeavour is the feeling that for all its clear absurdity – “They looked at the door, screaming about how closed it was and asking it to be replaced with a small orb. The password was ‘BEEF WOMEN,’ Hermione cried.” – there is still some semblance of Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling to it all.

While we are a little in awe at the surreal genius of some of the lines Botnik has created, there is nothing fancy about these machines. They are not magically complex. They are simple algorithms built by simple tools. They follow predefined rules of grammar and structure to compose what they perceive as logical-sounding snippets.

The passages do reveal, however, interesting patterns within the lexicon of the Harry Potter franchise. The lines that do make sense, or perhaps don’t feel out of place – “Leathery sheets of rain lashed at Harry’s ghost as he walked across the grounds towards the castle.” – come across this way precisely because as readers we are used to seeing this type of descriptive exposition put down in this type of order. The words Botnik sometimes chooses may not always fit the bill – “he immediately began to eat Hermione’s family” – but they are presented (for the most part) in an order and structure that J.K. Rowling utilises most of all. In this way, Botnik holds up a fascinatingly surreal mirror to the writing voice and style of one of the best selling authors in history.

So, it would be thoroughly fascinating to find out what J.K. Rowling herself made of this quasi-A.I project. Does she see herself in some of the passages of Botnik-Potter? Or, perhaps the more intriguing question focuses on the machine in all of this – and so we might better ask Botnik whether it dreams of Electric Harry Potter.

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Electric literature – five digital projects that make you think about books in an entirely new way

 

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Digitally mapping literature: the project ‘Mapping Emotions in Victorian London’ takes data from readers and primary texts to create a graphical visualisation of emotions in fictional Victorian London. 

Here’s a new one for you – what if we were to argue that literary scholarship and the general study of literature no longer requires you to actually read any books? Instead, the same results could be achieved by using computers to crunch “big data” and stores of literary information to provide new insights into the way we think about books, literature, and stories.

This obviously flies in the face of the standard understanding of literary study that for centuries has insisted upon the close reading of texts. Yet it is not a unique argument.

We’ve previously considered whether, with the rise of Apps and digital programming influencing the way we publish stories, the future of literature may be electric. And there is now an increasing number of groups and individuals who believe a similar approach could be taken towards academic literary theory. Indeed, they term this “computational criticism” – that is, the analysis of literature in a statistical way using computational models and digital programming.

Why now? Simply, because modern digital technology permits it. Since Google developed an electronic scanner capable of digitising books in 2004, the written words of all literature can be turned into data – and computers can scan and process this information to pick out trends and identify new areas of insight. They can create graphs, tables, and visual representations of this data that is – arguably – more engaging and interesting to consider than a 100,000 word treatise on the relationship between Kafka’s shoes and modern anti-establishment sentiment (please note: this may not in fact be an actual PhD thesis title – but there are some great ones out there, see for yourselves).

Of course, the idea of visually representing literature as data is not new. One of the great masters of the written word, Kurt Vonnegut, proposed mapping the plots of stories, as well as character development arcs, onto graphs. In 1952, the satirist’s work Player Piano predicted a dystopia in which giant computers have taken over the work of the human brain – and in his later lectures on the shapes of stories he opined “there’s no reason why the shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers.”

Needless to say, this topic has drawn some controversy among the literary establishment. Harold Bloom, one of the best-known literary critics and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, has described the idea of digital literary theory as “absurd […] I am interested in reading; that’s all I’m interested in.”

Others are, however, more receptive to these ideas. Jonathan Franzen, for example, says: “The canon is necessarily restrictive. So what you get is generation after generation of scholarship struggling to say anything new. There are only so many ways you can keep saying Proust is great.”

“It can be dismaying to see Kafka or Conrad or Brontë read not for pleasure but as cultural artefacts,” Franzen continues. “To use new technology to look at literature as a whole, which has never really been done before, rather than focusing on complex and singular works, is a good direction for cultural criticism to move in. Paradoxically, it may even liberate the canonical works to be read more in the spirit in which they were written.”

We’ll let you decide for yourselves what you think of this new world of literary study. Below, you’ll find five of our “picks” of digital projects in the humanities. Let us know what you think in the comments section at the end!

 

  1. Mapping Emotions in Victorian London draws on annotations made by readers on passages of Victorian novels, to generate an “emotional map” of London. You can navigate the map online, exploring the emotions of the readers, as well as the underlying fictional passages, to discover the ways in which London was constructed, navigated and represented emotionally in its fiction.
  2. BookLamprecognises how similar one book is to others in the same genre. Simply type into BookLamp’s search bar one of your favourite novels and it will return a data-driven list of 20 more titles that you’ll like.
  3. VisualEyes, developed by the University of Virginia, is a web-based tool that uses data to digitally map, graph and chart important historical events, searching through vast online databases to pinpoint where concepts first appeared and how they spread across the world.
  4. ‘A View of the World Through Wikipedia’is a time-lapse video made by Kalev Leetaru, a researcher at the University of Illinois, charting how writers have expressed generally positive or negative sentiments towards the places they have written about. Leetaru has done similar analyses with books, social media and online news in a project entitled Culturomics 2.0
  5. The Circumstance art collective in Bristol is an interactive online model: a combination of a print book and an urban-walking app that overlays an imaginary world onto the physical.

 

 

 

 

The app and the paperback: is the future of literature electric?

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Faber and Touchpress have launched a “groundbreaking” new mode of publishing, which explores the future of digital reading after ebooks.

Novelist Iain Pears has worked with the two media organisations to create a new reading experience which combines the traditional paperback novel with the new digital opportunities of the smartphone or tablet app.

His new work, Arcadia, has been conceived to be read as an app first and book second, with the application written using specially-commissioned software and developed for readers by Touchpress and Gaver, the partners behind multi-award-winning apps such as The Waste Land and Shakespeare’s Sonnets for iPad.

The e-novel gathers up ten characters in three different worlds, and presents them as a skein of coloured, intersecting lines. Short bursts of text propel the characters onward, or across into another storyline: the choice depends upon the reader.

But this is not your standard “choose your adventure” type model of writing – or reading. This interactive fiction enables every single individual reader to experience the story differently. The author controls the story universe, but how readers reave the three tales – pastoral utopia, 1950s Oxford and dystopian future – is deeply dependent on the individual turning the page (or, in this case, putting fingertip to touch screen).

“There are readers who are ‘acrossers’ and others who are ‘up and downers’,” says Henry Volans, director of Faber Press, a division of the app’s publisher, Faber & Faber. “It’s meant to be a rabbit hole that encourages all sorts of reading.”

Where will this rabbit hole end?

The Circumstance art collective in Bristol is set to follow a similar interactive model of app and primary text (or primary app and secondary text, as it may be, depending on your viewpoint), as the group prepare to publish a new version of “These pages fall like ash”: a combination of a print book and an urban-walking app that overlays an imaginary world onto the physical.

Some remain cautious of suggesting anything even more interactive could be produced, however. Lincoln Michel, of the website Electric Literature, says it is hard to imagine a truly digital novel because “we already have digital narratives – they’re called videogames”. Meanwhile, British novelist, Naomi Alderman, points to the intimate nature of reading, echoing the thoughts of many other readers and writers throughout the centuries: “There’s nothing like a novel to take you into the individual consciousness of a writer. But there are things that are choice-based that only video games can do.”

Human beings have always been story tellers. Part of the reason for our species’ success has been our ability to communicate – and in fact has been key to the rise of the digital era we currently live in. What we may be catching the first glimpses of is a new digital environment that begins to break the page. As Tom Abba, a scholar or digital narrative at the University of the West of England says: “We’re trying to nudge the reader into a new kind of relationship with the story.” In other words, the traditional models of reading are changing. The future of literature may be electric.