wayne clements on Wed, 13 Aug 2008 14:52:01 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> An Eternal Engine : Re: Review of Another Bourgeois Book on Web 2.0: Tapscott/Williams: Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything

Dear Nettimers,

> here is a review of another book on web 2.0, don tapscott, anthony
> williams: wikinomics: how mass collaboration changes everything

> the book by tapscott and williams shows which dangerous and ideological
> results are the outcome if bourgeois thinkers write about economic issues
> of web 2.0.

Reading Christian's review prompted me to dust off
this  essay 'An Eternal Engine', below.  It may add
something to Christian's perhaps, as it deals more
with the structure of the machine and less with case
examples (like the Amazon Mechanical Turk). But as
Matthew Fuller remarks "The...template, hooked up to
the ...database, is an economic machine".


(The web version is here:

It's the text of a presentation, somewhat revised,
made at a conference last year


   An Eternal Engine [1]

Writing of Ramon Llull's 'thinking machines', Borges
suggests playfully that we change the contents, the
concepts these machines manipulate, designated by the
terms on their rotating wheels. These wheels turn to
create new combinations and so spell out propositions
such as, 'Angels are wise'.


But, according to Borges, Llull's medieval expressions
are no longer serviceable. He suggests, therefore, the
preoccupations of Llull's machine might be modernised
along the following lines:

   "We now know that the concepts of goodness,     
greatness, wisdom, power, and glory are incapable of
engendering an appreciable revelation. We (who are
basically no less naïve than Llull) would load the
machine differently, no doubt with the words Entropy,
Time, Electrons, Potential Energy, Fourth Dimension,
Relativity, Protons, Einstein. Or with Surplus Value,
Proletariat, Capitalism, Class Struggle, Dialectical
Materialism, Engels." (Borges, 1999, p. 157).

In Borges's revision, it is only the words that are
modernised, not the machine itself. Nor is our
understanding of what this machine is fundamentally
challenged. Like Llull's, Borges's would continue to
produce unpredictable, but highly determinate,
sentences. These machines of Llull and Borges,
whatever their component concepts, are essentially
random sentence generators, where the syntax is fixed
and choices are made from a prepared list. 

Such machines are the subject (probably) of Swift's
famous parody writing machine from Gulliver's Travels:

   "It was Twenty Foot square, placed in the Middle of
the Room. The Superficies was composed of several Bits
of Wood, about the Bigness of a Dye, but some larger
than others. They were all linked together by slender
Wires. These Bits of Wood were covered on every Square
with Paper pasted on them, and on these Papers were
written all the Words of their Language, in their
several Moods, Tenses, and Declensions, but without
any Order". [2] 

These machines comprise fixed rules and random
utterances, astronomically large, but not infinite,

Florian Cramer (2005) correctly identifies the
limitations and the contradictions of these machines
and other randomising contrivances: 
they produce chance combinations, but they are not
themselves random. Their structure and construction,
in fact, is fixed. "The strict separation of static
instructions and contingent data contradicts the
assumption of a 'chance operation'. This is the
paradox of all aleatory art, including concrete poetry
and the music of John Cage." (Cramer, p.103).

The old writing machine was, in computer-speak, 'stand
alone', being a non-networked machine. Thus insular,
its data was as fixed as its rules. But the networked
new writing machine may receive inputs that are not
preordained. And its rules are not fixed. These are
differences that prompt a rethinking of the
contemporary writing machine.

One of the compensations of determinateness and
insularity is efficiency: Llull's machine has, within
its own terms, no waste. Because its vocabulary and
syntax are predetermined, it produces no redundancy.
It is impossible that his machine would say 'God is a 
herring', which is theologically incorrect, or
'herring God a is', which is wrong, at least by most
English users' standards, for other reasons. Both
senseless and ill-formed remarks are forbidden.

The new writing machine is a networked machine. Its
rules are fluid, as are its data. One of the problems
of indeterminateness is redundancy. That is to say,
whilst Llull's machine may be relied on not to produce
statements its author might not approve of, the same
cannot be said of the new writing machine. (What this
means in practice is that the writings of this machine
may be a site of contestation. This is because of the
extreme unpredictability of possible inputs and output
statements and disagreements as to their worth). 
While the old writing machine could emit a large but
not infinite number of remarks, the new writing
machine is as indeterminate in structure as it is
potentially (at least) infinite in production.

What I am suggesting therefore is a rethinking of
writing on the Internet as a development of the
writing machine ? a development in both the form of
the machine and the data it may use. It is the fact of
the computer, and the networked computer specifically,
that enables this change.

The new writing machine is reconfigurable. (Speaking
of digital computers in general) Niels Finnemann
(1999) states, "rules can be changed, modified,
suspended or ascribed new functions?influenced by any
component part of the system or according to new
inputs whether intended or not" (Finnemann, p. 22).
This flexibility extends to any writing machine that
is simulated by a computer. Such a flexibility is
logical, however, not actual. It is prevented in
reality by restrictions both practical (for instance
the deliberate obfuscation of code) and legal (the
licensing of  proprietary software for example). This
constitutes one significant difference between open
source/open content projects, such as Wikipedia, and
other non-open source software. 

Wikipedia, and its sister projects, can be thought of
as writing machines, but they are not the only writing
machines functioning on the Internet. They are,
however, some of the more interesting; this interest
devolves from their constitution as open content
(anyone may contribute) and open source (the code is
published and may be developed and functions thus

The old writing machine was human authored. But once
created, it was unaltered by human usage. Nor did it
depend, as a logical machine, upon its environment. It
was impervious to outside influence. But the new
machines depend upon their networked status for

Many consequences flow from these dictums. In the new
writing machine the human and the mechanical
interpenetrate. The new writing machine is in fact
cyborg: part human, part machine. In most
circumstances, however, there are severe limitations
permissible human inputs, and the relationship is thus

These new machines still depend, as does Llull's (and
Borges's revisions), on the ancient method of
employing fixed structures and variable inputs we
observed above. This technique of text generation is
known as a template, or substitution, system and
predates both
Llull and the modern computer. Janet Murray (1997)
describes this system in her discussion of
computerised narrative. Her discussion is derived in
turn from Alfred Lord's work on folk literature, The
Singer of Tales. A substitution system may be thought
of as a stock of formulas into which may be
substituted chosen elements. Lord argued that poets in
the oral tradition used these formulas as an aid to

"Early attempts at computer-based literature tried to
use similar methods of simple substitution" (Murray,
p. 189). An example is Margaret Masterman's
Computerized Haiku, circa 1968 [3]. Computerized Haiku
uses a frame into which words are substituted. (Words
in brackets are fixed. The others are chosen from
prepared lists):


Despite subsequent developments, such methods continue
to be a stock in trade of online writing machines (the
output of which is seldom dignified with the
designation Literature), which are by and large
diligent robots, the type that manage our form-filling
adventures. We can input a name, password, email
address and, of course the machine will write a
reproof if these are not legitimate. This is often
more or less the extent of the transaction.

Not so, however, with wikis where there is of course a
greater freedom to contribute. It is this liberty that
for the most part wiki 'vandalism' exploits. Vandalism
(but also permissible contributions) treats pages as
templates into which material may be substituted:

Blanking: "Removing all or significant parts of pages'
content without any reason, or replacing entire pages
with nonsense."

Page lengthening: "Adding very large?amounts of
bad-faith content".

Spam: "adding or continuing to add external links to
non-notable or irrelevant sites".

Silly vandalism: "Adding profanity, graffiti, random
characters, or other nonsense to pages".    

Sneaky vandalism: "This can include adding plausible
misinformation to articles". [4] 

And so on. The repetition of words such as 'adding'
and 'replacing' here makes the point quite well: pages
are used as templates for the addition (or
subtraction) of content. The guidance on
non-destructive activity makes the same case: "Adding
large amounts of good-faith content is not vandalism".
Motives differ, methods not.

The new writing machine may produce large amounts of
redundancy. The greater the liberty allowed, the
greater the potential redundancy, which may in turn be
dealt with by invoking privileges allowed for by the
flexibility of rules Finnemann characterises. Rules
can be created, and changed, and suspended. 

An example of rule suspension is the Wikipedian use of
'page protection', a rule that suspends the more
fundamental wiki rule that any page may be edited,
allowing only administrators to edit the specified

To return to Borges, our understanding of the writing
machine requires not merely a revision of the notion
of its contents but also of its structure. This
prompts a consequent development of our theory of the
machine. The discussion of Literature, with familiar
genres of 
narrative and poetry and so on, has in some degree
distracted from an exponential growth in the number of
these machines and their evolution as of kind. The
advent of the computer, the networked computer, has
meant the multiplication of the writing machine. 
No longer a mystical anomaly, these machines are now
functional and ubiquitous.


[1]  This paper's title, like that of Infernal Thunder
(Clements, 2006) published in a minima 19, is taken
from Milton's Paradise Lost, Book II: "?to meet the
noise of his eternal engine he shall hear Infernal
thunder". A version of this paper was presented at
'New Network Theory', a conference at The Institute of
Network Cultures, University of Amsterdam, 28th to
30th June 2007.

[2]   "The Professor then desired me to observe, for
he was going to set his Engine at work. The Pupils at
his Command took each of them hold of an Iron Handle,
whereof there were Forty fixed round the Edges of the
Frame, and giving them a sudden Turn, the whole
disposition of the Words was entirely changed. He then
commanded Six and Thirty of the Lads to read the
several Lines softly as they appeared upon the Frame;
and where they found Three or Four Words together that
might make Part of a Sentence, they dictated to the
Four remaining Boys who were Scribes. This Work was
repeated Three or Four Times, and at every Turn the
Engine was so contrived that the Words shifted into
new Places, as the square Bits of Wood moved upside
down." Swift (1963) pp. 175-176.

[3]   See Clements (2004

[4]   See


Borges J. L. (1999) 'Ramon Llull's Thinking Machine'
in, The total library: non-fiction 1922-1986 (Ed.)
Weinberger, E., trans. Allen, E. Levine, S. J., and
Weinberger, E. London, Penguin: 155-160. 

Clements, W. (2004) 'Computer Poetry's Neglected
(20th July 2008).

Clements, W. (2006) 'Infernal Thunder' in, a minima
19. Espacio Publicaciones Barcelona.

Cramer, F. (2005) WORDS MADE FLESH. Code, Culture,
Imagination. Rotterdam, Piet Zwart Institute.
fcramer/wordsmadeflesh/wordsmadefleshpdf> (28th July

Finnemann, N.O. (1999) Modernity Modernised
(14th May 2007).

Murray, J. H. (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck. The
Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge Mass.

Swift, J. (1963) Gulliver's Travels. New York, Airmont

                                      Wayne Clements


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