Social Networking With The Living Dead

Twitter is the land of the dead. In this social networking microcosm the living, real human content generators; and the dead, automated bots/marketeers/spammers; share a peaceful coexistence.

Every day my account gains new spam followers and loses a few real people. Gradually the human agents of my readership are being replaced by automata, until one day soon I will be left babbling to a disinterested audience of the inert, passive and/or robotic, shuffling along behind me like Romero zombies.

George A Romero

Might this be the ultimate destiny of Twitter? Will there come a point where my following is entirely automata? Might it eventually devolve into a closed memetic feedback loop in which uncomprehending bots blindly retweet auto-generated content at each other at high speed, while the humans are all off partying on the moon.

Some days it feels like this has already happened.

Rudy Rucker, my favourite mathematician (we all have a favourite mathematician don’t we), has a concept he calls “the lifebox“. I’ve written about it before. He foresees a future where the dead live on through the data they have left behind. The content (text, audio, video etc…) they have generated during their lifetimes, bundled with some intelligent search software, could create a type of queryable data-entity, a lifebox.

In this scenario our descendants will be able to converse with their long departed relatives, in much the same way as they interact with the living, through electronic channels. The lifebox software would be able not only to return, but also extrapolate, meaningful responses to queries. In short, you could ask your dead great-grandmother a question and, even if she had not left record of her thoughts on that topic, the kind of response one might expect from her could be generated.

It is autobiography as a living construct. Our grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same quality of relationship with the dead as you might do now with your warm bodied FaceBook/Twitter chums. And as the sophistication of semantic tools develop, the lifebox could become capable of creating fresh content too, writing new blog posts, or copy-pasting together video messages. It is a much more feasible form of immortality than Walt Disney ever invested in.

Toying with this idea I decided I’d have a go at creating my own rudimentary lifebox. I was going to build it in Flash, just a basic text muncher that trawled my online writings, matched any cultural references from a dictionary, replaced that text with the trending topics of the day, then tweeted what it had generated. This way I would have a zenbullbot that could rant on the state of the world, without me having to do the hard work of getting grumpy about it myself.


It would probably have taken me a day or so to build, but after last night drunkenly pitching the idea to my anarcho-art-geek friend shardcore (we all have a token anarcho-art-geek friend don’t we), who also happens to be a shithot Perl coder, he knocked up an automated version of me in about ten minutes this afternoon, reusing an old Markov chain script he’d put together a few years previously to create a scarily convincing celebrity gossip bot (typical entry: “Justin Bieber showed his appreciation for members of band camp, that thick liquid rushing up your throat is called vomit“)


Ok, so this undead clone of me (follow him here) may not be as coherent or relevant as the flesh version (a belief I’m clinging to very tightly). But it sure sounds like the kind of shite I come out with.

Having just finished writing a book on the subject of generative art, which might be said to go some way toward devaluing human practitioners of the abstract visual arts, you might dismiss The Late Mr Bullets as a piss-poor attempt to do similar for the written word. But no, there is less allowance for abstraction with text, which is why the randomness of dedbullets betrays his inhumanity. Shardcore’s experiments along these lines are interesting though, see also his Word of God (mashing up the King James Bible, The Koran and the writings of L Ron Hubbard) or the Fortune Cats (who impart wisdom upon anyone who asks a question of them).

No, this is not a foray into generative text, this is more than that. Today I have done nothing short of achieving IMMORTALITY. For as long as shard’s server is around to run the Perl script, dedbullets will be talking to his bot (and human) followers on a social network somewhere. He’s alive I tell ya. ALLLIIIIVE!

posted August 6th, 2010

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