Exploring’Being Human’ Through A Computer Generated Novel

Web Science CDT student Lesia Tkacz
Winchester School of Art Alumna Dr Noriko Suzuki-Bosco
After enjoying the collaboration process on a short ​WSA community building project​, Tkacz and Suzuki-Bosco teamed up again to create a workshop for the University of Southampton’s 2020 Human Worlds Festival. Together they designed and ran the “Exploring ‘Being Human’ Through A Computer Generated Novel” workshop, which took place online on the 16th of November within the ‘Being Human as Praxis’ festival track.
Drawing from Tkacz’s research interests in creative text generation, and Suzuki-Bosco’s research on artist’s books, the online collaborative workshop invited participants to contribute to the creation and critical discussion of a work of generated literature in the form of a mashup-style computer generated novel. The workshop explored ideas of ‘humanness’ and what it means to practice being human when working with others and with the machine.By focusing on the generated novel as an emerging form of creative text generation, the workshop highlighted the form’s fascinating potential to complicate the role of the author and machine.
Computer generated literature connects back to experimental literary practices in Dada and Oulipo, as well as to early AI language research. This has shaped the current landscape of creative text generation, or, computer generated text which does not serve a practical purpose. It is text which has been made for expression, enjoyment, entertainment, playful experimentation, to convey points, and to represent concepts. For this reason, generated novels are not currently expected to ‘make sense’ or develop a narrative in the conventional sense. Indeed, to anyone who reads a sample of ​the novel which emerged from the workshop​, it’s clear to see that the playful element is certainly present.
In order to make the workshop accessible to as many people as possible, Tkacz and Suzuki-Bosco designed it so that no coding knowledge was required to participate. Before the workshop, Tkacz wrote a program which would generate the text, and used a simple Markov Chain generator in order to make the code easier to present and explain to anon-technical audience. The participants included university staff, students, CDT alumni, and members of the public, including an additional workshop for WSA postgraduate students and staff.
To prepare for the workshop, participants were asked to select and edit found texts which they felt resonated with the theme ‘being human’. The Project Gutenberg web archive was used to source the found texts. Everyone’s selected texts were combined to create the training data for the generator, which output several potential texts. These potential texts were then discussed, curated, and tweaked during the workshop to finalize a 50,000 word generated novel which stimulated further discussion. The participants named the novel The Year 2020: Now oil the joints of my hand at that moment that there is no love​, and submitted it to the annual online ​National Novel Generation Month (NaNoGenMo) challenge​, with all the participants listed as collaborating authors. The NaNoGenMo entry and more details about the generated novel can be seen ​here​.

For more information about the workshop and a brief introduction to generated novels and creative text generation, ​watch this lecture video​ by Lesia Tkacz and Noriko Suzuki-Bosco.

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