Monday, September 30, 2013

Horse_ebooks as a Free Will Fetish

"It seems we cannot get enough of our mechanical mirror stage."

- Peggy Nelson, Not a Bot (

Things like "whimsy" and "dada" (and even the basic human capacity for "spontaneity") all happen at the intersection of meaning and randomness. They fascinate us because, by cross-referencing our symbol systems with the universe's inscrutable patterns of noise and happenstance, we get some sense that the universe itself is actually conscious, or purposeful, or whatever.

@horse_ebooks was a token of that always-captivating emergent significance. My Twitter feed filled up with tearful farewells when it was outed as a human "conceptual art project," and I felt disposed to join them. At least for me, the dismay results from losing that sense of whimsy and emergent meaning. Knowing it's a human, contriving the meaning and simulating the random factor, somehow steals away that elusive magic.

Of course, this illuminates one of the dialectical dissociations that underwrites human consciousness: we are fascinated by randomness, because we cannot entirely come to terms with it. Fortune tellers seeks out the most chaotic, meaningless systems possible (cards shuffling, tea leaves tossed about by convection) and insist on ascribing symbolic significance to the outcomes.

Pure purposefulness (corresponding to a deterministic universe) is boringly predictable. Pure randomness (quantum and non-deterministic) is boringly nihilistic. But somewhere at the threshold between them, we sense free will as a glimmer of purposeful indeterminacy. So we seek out things like @horse_ebooks and divination rituals, which seem to draw a connection between those two causal universes. Maybe this is one of the human mind's integral background processes: to search for evidence of our own agency in the framework of the universe.

For whatever reason, @horse_ebooks is much less interesting as an intentional art project than it was as an algorithmic gesture toward cosmic agency. Some psychological need was obviously being filled, and now it's not, so we're going to have to go back to our tarot cards.

No comments: