Code as Poetry, Time as a Variable – Options in the Ether


Driving into work I was listening to NPR and they were interviewing Nikki Giovani a poet from Virginia Tech. In high school I was one of those people who really suffered reading the The Red Wheelbarrow and other non-rhyming poems. They irritated me in the same way people seem to be annoyed by White Paintings or 4’33”. In any case, in college I took lots of English classes. One of those classes was on poetry with Donna Hickey. The class selection was driven more by fitting my schedule and a vague notion that I might minor in English rather than any real interest in poetry. The first day of class she had everyone list their favorite poets. I don’t recall what people chose but I remember feeling like my choices of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Suess was not of the same category. In any case, I had a great deal of fun with the course and using poems as games and puzzles to think around and through. I later took a graduate course with Dr. Hickey1 in poetry and made my first digital liberal arts website around 2001 or 2002. It focused on breaking down various Richard Hugo poems and creating attempts at multimedia experiences.2 That stuff is all long gone from the UR website. I might have backup copies on a floppy disk. In any case, I’ve been more interested in weird ways poetry open opportunities for different types of thinking.

The Idea

There is the idea that many things on the Internet are permament but, like my Richard Hugo website, many things still disappear.3 It seemed like a fun idea to play with time and scarcity with digital poetry.4

Wouldn’t it be fun and interesting to . . .

  • Make poetry that only existed at one point in time? It’s fun to think of written poetry as being as ephemeral as live performance.
  • Make poetry that exists at unpredictable times? You cannot know or find the poem other than by being in the right place at a particular time.
  • Make poetry that reappears at regular intervals (like a comet or a season)?
  • Make poetry that shifts when it reappears? This could be by integrating variables based on the poems location in time, making elements of the poem reference exteral elements (weather, stock prices, the word of the day),
    or integrating aspects of the viewer into the poem (browser, location, IP address etc.)
  • 5

No question we can do that. It’s even within reach of my limited programming skills. It also brings up lots of fun considerations. It’s a really fun way to explore the ephemeral nature of the Internet and technology itself.

The Half-Life of Technology

What if we wanted to have a poem that appeared every 4 years and have it evolve based on some elements we’re accessing at that time? What can we trust to be around in 4, 8, or 12 years, let alone 20 or 40 years? 12 years is short in the scheme of things but it’s long in terms of technology. Technology’s pace also makes things feel deceptively old. The first iPad was put out in 2010. APIs are pretty recent options. Watch the Google announcement for Chrome in 2008. Compared to today, it feels like you’re in the 1980s. Look at Alan’s list of dead web 2.0 sites. While things feel like they’ve existed forever we aren’t looking at long lifespans. Flickr is an ancient elder of the web 2.0 space and is only about 14 years old.

The point being that you’re building poems on shifting sands and trying to predict a future. Can you build on current structures and expect them to exist? Can the failure of these structures be an interesting input?

Timeline Interface

I’d like an interactive timeline that shows when scheduled poems appear. It’d be fun to auto-generate unique icons for these poems. Maybe combinations of these geological symbols or looking at generating shapes based on variables of the poem combined with the time of creation and the periods of rebirth. In my head it looks something like musical notation with multiple lines for recurring events and isolated icons for one-time appearances. Random poems would have no indicators.

Poetry Variables as a Path to Digital Literacy

Doing this with one person who knew how to code would be pretty simple (other than the bit about predicting the future). Making a user interface for other people would be possible but more complex. Setting re-birth times would be easy but the key would be making the integration of outside sources interesting and educational. You’d want to provide context for the poem’s author to think about where they were getting the information from and how it was being transported (technically) into the poem.

What information do you need to have to predict the lifespand of a source institution (corporation vs government vs edu vs person)? What has their history been with the lifespan of previous pages/services/sites?

What information would you want to have to predict the lifespan of the particular technology delivering the information? Does longer-lived technology (maybe XML vs JSON) mean it’s more likely to persist or more likely to age-out? Could the failure itself (of technology or source) result in an interesting option? Lots of stuff to help people think about.

You’ve also got the information from browsers to consider. What information do we have access to now? That’s a big dip into digital literacy right there without even looking at the future. What are our expectations of access to that information in the future? That stuff shifts in ways that are hard to predict. Google Chrome used to let me use location services without HTTPS and without user consent. I need both now.

I don’t know if we could get some of this information, but building interfaces that lets people choose the elements they care about and restricting the integration options progressively would be a powerful way to make this understood. Imagine being able to sort data sources by restricting by various elements. Maybe you care about longevity? You can select technology options that have existed for greater than 5 years or are newer than 1 year. We could tie in stock prices for companies. You could select organizations that are governments and that have offered a service for between 3 and 5 years.

There might be moral considerations as well. Do you care about profit vs non-profit? Want to consider government sources through the democracy index, carbon footprint? Lots of differnt ways to play around with different elements.

Clearly the authoring tool doesn’t provide answers. It just provides data to think through as you engage with different options. Your choices would depend on the things you care about and your belief about the relationship of this data to the future.

1 Part of a free (aborted when I left and it wasn’t free) Master’s in Liberal arts where I also took painting, the modern Middle East, and basics of computer programming.

2 There was at least one PowerPoint exported to HTML involved. My shame is now documented.

3 I think there needs to be a web-corallary to the “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you” thing NBC did. Something like “If I can’t find it, it’s not on the Internet.”

4 Could be someone already did something like this. I have seen sites that send you an email from yourself at some point in the future. Code as poetry is certainly a well established idea. I think the idea of integrating variables and using this as a strange path to digital fluency/literacy is relatively unique but I’ve been wrong many times before.

5 Of course XKCD did a beautiful example of this with the umwelt comic.