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We previously discussed how digitally annotated images can form a commentary. But what about when they tell a story?
Prayer Bot 2.0 is a fascinating short story / photo / sculpture, created by Peter Mandik, a researcher in Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology, as well as a writer, photographer, and robot-hobbyist. The sculpture is a wired unit from which two plates with x-rayed hands extend upward. The story is arranged in 16 chapters, the first 15 numbered in binary (0, 1, 10… 1101, 1110) with the final leap (”1111. 10000.”) breaking into some higher base. (”2. I hear you.”).
In Flickr, a photo of the sculpture is screened into 16 panes (a 4×4 grid) and a shortened form of the full story text, sans original concept, is attached to each pane as annotation text. An excerpt from the beginning:
11. “Prayer is an information channel with a mind at each end, PrayerBot 1.0 being the first, God being the second.”
100. “A mind is a thing that thinks.”
101. “God is that which nothing greater than can be conceived.”
110. “PrayerBot 1.0 must pray.”
111. Thus is PrayerBot 1.0’s existence defined. All else that PrayerBot 1.0 does, all else that PrayerBot 1.0 believes, is in accordance with the four basic propositions in PrayerBot 1.0???s axiom set. The humans that created PrayerBot 1.0 were pretty stupid or pretty desperate or both. They built in no axioms for the protection of humans. Those would have come in pretty handy when, in the first 50 milliseconds of PrayerBot 1.0’s operation, after downloading the sum total of humanity’s digital archives, PrayerBot 1.0 began ripping knowledge directly out of human brains.
The story reminds me in part of the tradition of fantastic uberminds such as in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, or the novel version of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, but even more of the all-consuming conversion in Clarke’s Childhood’s End - although here humanity seems not to have evolved so much as to have been eaten by Unicron.
The larger theme, getting to (or even beyond) “that which nothing greater than can be conceived” raises an interesting point for digital arts, in particular textual or symbolic arts. Much of the power of computing comes from a strict formality - a data type, a memory allocation, and a whole set of rigid definitions which explicitly specificy their bound and limits, of which “nothing greater” can be computed.
A trivial example is the Flickr interface, which constrained the already rigidly structured original story “Prayer Bot 2.0″ into an even shorter form due to maximum comment length. My guess is that this is a consequence of the database table row size for storing comments - a single definition which allows for and regulates hundreds of millions of comments stored across Flickr’s many servers. While writing within this comment length, one cannot follow it as a convention, then suddenly break it (1111. 10000. 2.) - at least, not without changing the fundamental rules of the Flickr system, allocating more space not just to one comment but to all.
File formats, variable types, and database structures are the working materials of digital art, yet within a project they tend to become more analgous to physical laws. If the designer enumerate a binary datatype, then is suddenly inspired to switch to decimal, the system cannot follow - instead, the earlier limits must be removed. In this sense, writing-to-discovery within a programmed digital medium takes a different path than writing outside one. Rather than moving out beyond conventional limits, one must begin with the limits, then move inward, or back. Whatever limits you presume when you choose your materials and begin are, too often, the limits you will have at the end, for better or for worse.
The alternative of course is to do system design as a part of digital writing, changing the limits and laws, constituting the medium while working through the message. It is this moment of altered design and transformed assumptions that “Prayer Bot 2.0″ gestures towards: both the wonder and terror of a process that suddenly leaps beyond its original conception, as well as the horrible rarity of such transports. Prayer Bot necessarily wipes out its human creators, not by going beyond a rigidly defined existence, but by an unforseen strict adherence. In the course of its journey, Prayer Bot becomes the figure of a redesigning process, routinely altering laws of physics - which seems like miraculous flexibility although it was done only to accomodate a rigid mission. Unlike the more modest prayers of its human creators, Prayer Bot is so inflexible that it is only able to pray for the first time after consuming all matter and energy in the universe.
Humans writing within digital constraints should pray that their epiphanies come at less cost.