The First Digital Literature?

In 1952, Christopher Strachey wrote a combinatoric love letter generator program - and now Noah Wardrip-Fruin of GTxA is putting his finger on the timeline and positing Strechey’s program as the first work of digital literature and perhaps all digital art: “Christopher Strachey: The first digital artist?

Here is one commonly cited example output from Strachey’s program:

Darling Sweetheart
You are my avid fellow feeling. My affection curiously clings to your passionate wish. My liking yearns for your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my tender liking.
Yours beautifully
M. U. C.

Accepting Noah’s argument hinges on accepting his definition of “digital literature” as digital (stored program digital computer) + literature (creations calling our attention to language).

Once we accept this definition, the first person who artfully manipulated the output of a stored program digital computer was probably the first digital artist - and Strachey seems to be a likely candidate.

On a personal note, Noah cites my very first new media essay, “Machine Writing and the Turing Test,” (2000) in which I discuss the generator in the context of queer theory. Yet, until my conversations with Noah, the possibility of the generator’s unique or original status never occured to me. Supposing that this is a significant point on the timeline - what are the implications and next steps for digital arts and criticism?

Most obviously, firsts of any kind belong in surveys. Sample outputs from the love letter generator might become staple PowerPoint slides in the historical surveys that leads into many new media courses.

By extension, a working recreation of the love letter generator would be educationally valuable. I’m not actually sure if the original code, or word lists are available anywhere - or if we have enough example output to reconstruct the word lists. If we did, web CGI scripts and toy applications would be an even better teaching resource than slides of sample outputs, and would probably proliferate in the way that Eliza has, as a historically significant algorithm which is constantly re-implemented.

More generally, the claim that “digital art began with a generator” might lead to a resurgence of interest in text generator art, a form which often seems eclipsed by interest in hypertextual and interactive work. Noah speculates that “the primary reason for the lack of literary discussion of Strachey?s generator is that the output simply isn?t very compelling… (yet) it is a work that can only be understood, in fact, as a system ? never by an exhaustive reading of its texts.”

In practice, I think that “the output isn’t very compelling” is the common reaction to generator art. Most generator art on the net (such as the ubiquitous haiku generators) fit into a folk art or naive art tradition rather than say the template of high modernism so clearly present in most Eastgate hypertext fiction. In fact, Noah’s story of Strachey as the amateur enthusiast fits perfectly into this outsider narrative.

This is not to say there aren’t examples of generators with sophisticated output (The Postmodernism Generator, powered by the DaDa Engine) or rigorous professional design (BRUTUS, featured in Bringsjord and Ferrucci’s “Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity“). But, given the gap between individual output and multiplicity, we must embrace one more idea in order to engage generators fully: art as system.

3 Responses to “The First Digital Literature?”

  1. 1 noah

    Jeremy - thanks for your thoughts. Just a quick note to say that we do have the complete code for the love letter generator. David Durand has been looking into Strachey’s papers, and found it there. David says it would probably be possible to run it in emulation and certainly quite doable to reimplement.

  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass

    If and when he can share that, I’d love to see it - I’d even volunteer to do a re-implementation myself (although I’m not sure what form the original is in….)

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