Category: Electronic literature

Infinite Monkeys


The “modularity” principle we found in new media is the basis of all languages: we combine a set of symbols to compose words, words to make sentences and so on.
The part of a text are clearly distinct and easy to recombine, and especially in poetry new unexpected meanings can emerge from arbitrary juxtapositions.
Many writers, poets and artists experimented with loss of control in writing.

Given enough time, a hypothetical monkey typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce all of Shakespeare’s plays.
– the Infinite Monkey Theorem

Not to be taken literally…

In an experiment conducted in a Zoo in England, zookeepers left a computer keyboard in the cage of six macaques for a month. The monkeys produced only a five page document, consisting mostly of the letter S, until the alpha male bashed the keyboard with a stone and all the other monkeys urinated and defecated on it.
– Dario Maestripieri, Primatologist

Writers and artists have been fascinated with randomness and with the combinatorial properties of text since DADA.

To make a Dadaist poem
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
– Tristan Tzara, 1920

Writer William Burroughs in the ’50s applied this technique, dubbed cut-up technique, to his own writing and recordings. (And David Bowie, and Kurt Cobain, and Thom Yorke…)

At that point, artists were applying randomness not only to text:

In John Cage’s Music of Changes (1951) the composer selected duration, tempo, and dynamics by using the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese book which prescribes methods for arriving at random numbers.

Principle of variability in new media

A new media object is not something fixed once and for all but can exist in different, potentially infinite, versions. This is another consequence of numerical coding of media and modular structure of a media object
Lev Manovich – The language of New Media

The first example of Computer based text generator is Loveletter by Christopher Strachey (1952)
Web version

The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed is the first book supposedly written by a an artificial intelligence program called RACTER in 1983. In reality it used prewritten madlib-like templates with randomized word.

Happily and sloppily a skipping jackal watches an aloof crow. This is enthralling. Will the jackal eat the crow? I fantasize about the jackal and the crow, about the crow in the expectations of the jackal.
Babbitt, along with other enthusiasts, married a runner, and consequently L. Ron Hubbard married Schubert, the confused feeler, himself who was divorcing L. Ron Hubbard’s Tasmanian devil. Then elegance prevailed. Poor Babbitt! But that’s how enthusiasts are.

The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed

Context free grammars
Generation of text according to formal rules.

Taroko Gorge by Nick Momford. Derivative works using different databases and algorithms.

Word generation under constraint:
Adhesion text
You can create pretty interesting literature with it.

Text generation as parody:
Postmodernism generator

Automatic CS Paper Generator

Art critique generator

Artist Statement
Bad literature

And so on…

Machine imagined art
– based on the Tate database

Meaning by Eugenio Tisselli, 2005
Each time this page is visited, one of the words in the following section will be replaced by a synonym. The replaced word is shown in bold. Refresh the page to replace another word.

Twitter Bots
By Darius Kazemi
You must be – from dictionary
Two headlines – from headlines
Amrite – from twitter trends and ryhmes
– from dictionary
freestyle 80s battle rap generator – dictionary and fixed templates

Horse ebooks
(turned out to be fake)
Olivia Taters
in dialog with the Met museum bot.

Markov Chain generation
The algorithm analyzes a source text and stores all the variations of a sequence of n letters.
Text generation starts from a random 5-character sequence present in the table, then out of the possible resolutions it randomly picks the next symbol.

'hello ' -> [m,w,p] chooses 'm' (randomly)
'ello m' -> [a,a,a,o,o] chooses 'a' (randomly)
'llo ma' -> [m]
'lo mam' -> [a,b]
'o mama' -> [' ']
' mama ' -> [w,!]
'mama w'....

The result is text that sounds right but doesn’t make any sense.

Example Dissociated press

The most common and utilitarian use of Markov chain for text generation is Spam

living with bubble bounce fairy from diskette.
Still eat her from cream puff
from, ignore her around widow with fairy living with freight train.cleavage
ignore from industrial complex.

Because is predestined friends,
Designer Shoes
we meet by chance in the space,
because is sincere,
we become the friend who separates the screen,
a blessing,

Wholesale designer shoes
our invariable subject
stays behind in your space
belongs to my footprint
to remain the regard your space
to wish your joyful happy each day!

From Spam Poetry Institute

What would I say
– based on your Facebook updates

Assignment: Interactive Story

Readings – due Thursday 28

Read at least one of these texts and write a personal response on the blog. I’m not looking for a summary or a review (I liked it etc.), it can be any coherent thought that runs in your mind after reading.

The garden forking paths – Jorge Luis Borges (1941)
Brainy. We talked about it in class, visionary literature.

CYOA – Christian Swinehart (200?)
Geeky. A formal analysis of Choose Your Own Adventure books.

Computer Lib / Dream Machines – Ted Nelson (1974)
Trippy. Possibly the most important text about personal computers ever written. Keep in mind it was 1974, no personal computers, no graphical interfaces, no Internet. You can skip the pages between 17 and 34 in the PDF, they are still a bit too crackpot.
(excerpt from New Media Reader)

Write a branching story with one or more of the following features:

  • Non-human (or better, non-animal) main character
  • Events out of chronological order
  • Multiple characters

PART I – due Monday September 1st

Post two ideas for this project.

Write the the first paragraph and (at least) a couple of examples of choices for each of the potential projects.

If you are planning to include visuals, produce (at east) one illustration/animation as example.

Start experimenting with Twine.

PART II – due Monday September 8th

Write (and illustrate) your story using Twine.

Post it in your personal web space and post a link in the blog.


Read at least 10 of your classmates work and post a comment on the blog with constructive criticism, impressions and suggestions.


Try to limit each block of text to one or two paragraphs

Don’t provide many choices, provide interesting choices

Don’t just think about the content, think about how it could be narrated:
self-aware / self referential?
fist, second, third person?
multiple endings?
multiple beginnings?
Do you control an avatar?
Does it have graphics? What’s the relation between graphics and text?

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Hello Twine!


Twine is an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories.
Official website + downloads

Quick intro by Anna Anthropy

Video tutorials by the creator:


This is the source of the advanced tutorial I showed in class (choices, actions, display, html, css).

To customize your story style follow these steps:
1. Download Brackets

2. Build a story and open the html file in brackets. Or use these two sample stories: CSS test

3. Tweak the style section of the html using Brakets’ live preview

4. When you are satisfied copy the style blocks you changed, go back to your twine project file and and paste them in a new isolated passage tagged “stylesheet”.

Twine CSS – How to change the appearance of your story-game by Ashton Raze

Some ready made Twine styles by Leon Arnott (for the engine Sugarcane)

Color palette creator
– turn an image in a CSS ready palette

Google fonts fonts that can be linked in your css

Official wiki with reference and much more

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Branching narrative from Borges to the Hypertext

Linear story

Branching story

The problem with branching stories

The most common solution

Or another solution…

From You chose wrong

Your first assignment is a branching story.
The most popular artifacts of this kind are the Gamebooks or Choose Your Own Adventure. Very popular teenage literature in the 80s and 90s.

CYOA diagram – Michael Niggel

PDF here

Or you can check this impressive formal analysis of Choose your own adventure books:

Visualizations, playable books and essay here.

Before computers

We have to go back in time to find more “noble” precursors of non-linear and interactive storytelling.

Apollinaire – il pleut 1916 F.T. Marinetti and the Futurists “Words in freedom” (1909 – 1916)

And the DADA movement

To make a Dadaist poem
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
– Tristan Tzara, 1920

Writer William Burroughs in the ’50s applied this technique to his own writing.
(And David Bowie, and Kurt Cobain, and Thom Yorke…)

Jorge Luis Borges

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)
In the short story a character named Ts’ui Pên tells everybody that he wanted to write a book and build a labyrinth. Nobody ever found the labyrinth, only a very confusing and contradictory book. We then discover that the book *is* the labyrinth. In the fictional book, every chapter is followed by “every” possible continuation.

"In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable work of of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses - simultaneously - all of them. He thus creates various futures, various times which start others that will in turn branch out and bifurcate in other times. This is the cause of the contradictions in the novel"
The Garden of Forking Paths - Jorge Luis Borges

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) in which non linear storytelling is used to explore the subjectivity of truth, subverting mystery drama cliches.

Agusto Boal’s Forum Theatre (1960)
In this process, the actors or audience members could stop a performance, often a short scene in which a character was being oppressed in some way (for example, a chauvinist man mistreating a woman or a factory owner mistreating an employee). The audience could propose any solution, so long as they conveyed it on stage, working, acting, and directing not from the comfort of their seat.

Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar ( 1963)
Written in an episodic, snapshot manner, the novel has 155 chapters.
The book can be read either in direct sequence from chapter 1 to 56 or by hopscotching through the entire set of 155 chapters. There are several other ways to read the novel, such as reading only the odd or even pages, or choosing chapters in completely random order. There are multiple endings.

Raymond Queneau

Founder of Oulipo – Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (workshop of potential literature).

Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (1961)

web port here

Also by Queneau: Story as You Like It (1984)


Computer Lib / Dream Machines – Theodor H. Nelson, 1974. Self produced later republished by Microsoft.

Like many early geeks, Ted Nelson saw computers and networks as empowering tools and advocated for the democratization of these technology (You can and you must understand computers now!).Personal computer = personal liberation.

Ted Nelson coined the term Hypertext in the 60s.

“A system of non-sequential writing that would allow the reader to aggregate meaning in snippets, in the order of his or her choosing, rather than according to a pre-established structure fixed by the author.”

A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia – Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980)
These ideas, and a general antipathy toward the author-as-authority, resonated with the post-structuralist theories (late 70s – 80s). In particular with the concept of Rhizome.

“Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states.”

“The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. Unlike the graphic arts, drawing, or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight.”


Even before the world wide web popularized the hypertexts, Apple already provided an intuitive way to create hypertext documents.  Maybe too ahead of its time hypercard never allowed the connection of remote documents, it could have been the first browser and the first visual editor.


cyberpunkstack - hypercard


The concept of hypertext is now familiar to anybody thanks to the World Wide Web (invented in 1990 and popularized in 1995 with the invention of modern browsers) but in the 80s it was a quite exotic medium, especially for non-utilitarian uses.
Still some fiction writers started to experiment with the hypertext as literary form.

Afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce (1987)

You can read Afternoon, a story online here

And “253” by Geoff Ryman here originally published in 1996. It’s assigned as “home play”.

Interactive fiction

The most vital legacy of hypertext literature is Interactive Fiction.
IF uses more sophisticated structures than the simple branching and a parser for the interaction, usually employed to navigate spaces, interact with characters and objects in a game-like fashion.

Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe and Michael Cho (2008) is a good introduction to IF. Also in homeplay.

IF is a kind of universe on its own which deserves its own course. A great introduction and a collection of resources can be found on Emily Short’s website.

Text adventures

The parser was pioneered by a more popular form of hyperfiction, the adventure game.


even cowgirl bleed

In recent years there has been a revival of digital choose your own adventure – type of games facilitated by Twine an accessible and open source tool.
Usually experimental in nature, twine games are emblematic of a fierce DIY game making movement spearheaded by queer authors.


253 by Geoff Ryman
Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe and Michael Cho
The Immoral Ms. Conduct by Hannah Epstein
Spent by McKinney
How to Speak Atlantean by Porpentine
Ultra Business Tycoon by Porpentine
Cyborg Goddess by Kara Stone and Kayte McKnight
Coming Out Simulator by Nicky Case
Nested by Orteil

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