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Inflexible structures, capitalistic thinking, and strict copyright regulations: Eva von Redecker and Aurélie Herbelot weren’t convinced. In 2011, they founded PeerPress, a publishing company based on the creative commons model. They sat down with Julia Korbik to talk about computer-written poetry and the similarity between lorries and hamsters.

The European: The first book published by PeerPress was ‘discourse.cpp’, which is full of poems written by a computer. Today computers have a big influence and an important impact on our everyday lives. But letting them write poems: isn’t that a bit too much?

Herbelot: The purpose of the book was not to let a computer write poetry, but to actively use a computer to have a better idea of what humans say about different cultural concepts. The poems were edited as well, which means that they are not completely written by the computer, but the computer did provide the data base. I think the result is actually very human: there are all those relations between words in our language which we use without being aware of them and they come across via that computer process. But it’s just making obvious things we do all the time as humans. So from my point of view the computer is just a little help to grab those things we’re not necessarily aware of when we speak.

Von Redecker: You could also describe it exactly the other way around: it’s actually the human need for poetry taking over the computer.

The European: Where did the idea come from to let a non-human-being write poems?

Herbelot: When I was doing my master thesis, I was extracting relationships out of Wikipedia that were taxonomic relationships (classification with regard to certain criteria, N.B.) with regards to animals, things like “a cat is a mammal.” And the idea was to do it automatically. I was getting out those long, long, long lists of thousands of relations. And they were lying on my desk all the time and I was looking at them and trying to improve the system.

Von Redecker: Me and a friend just thought that these lists were like poetry. It was really in this playful way that it sort of came out of the results and the material. I think that has also encouraged us to stick to saying “This is actually a computer writing poetry.”

The European: So the reader has to make an effort too to understand, to get poetry out of it.

Von Redecker: As with every text. I think it’s not any harder with those texts than with everything else. You can read the book and completely ignore that there is this technological background. In contrast to some other experiments, our poetry is produced by state-of-the-art technology. Most of the computer poetry that exists somehow uses randomization. You can cut up a newspaper and throw it in the air and that’s also experimental poetry. But in ‘discourse.cpp’, there’s actually really some sort of cleverness behind it, which you cannot do with simple technology. The fact that the texts are not only bizarre and amusing, but that they also reveal the actual linguistic use, is due to the semantic analysis which the computer is able to do. Therefore it is at the same time a sociological project. In a way, you want poems to reveal something about how language is used – this project does this and it’s really sober statistical bases.

The European: And so what does it say about us and how we use language? The words we use, the topics we talk about?

Herbelot: Mostly scary things.

Von Redecker: Look at the gender/man/woman thing. It only lists the 20 most characteristic frequences, with Wikipedia as the corpus. So not even the whole internet, that would be much more devastating. The poem is based on the original order given as a result by the computer and consequently it shows the most typical use of the terms, like we use them in the discourse about men and women. It’s really interesting: on the female side, at the tenth position, it’s “commit suicide,” while on the male side, on the same line it’s “hold power.”

The European: You already mentioned it several times, but how exactly do we have to imagine the process from which the poems did result? How did you get the results?

Herbelot: It depends on the poem, but a lot of them are made by using a technique called ‘dissolutional similarity’ (which is based on the assumption that two words appearing in a similar context are similar with regard to their meaning, N.B.), and basically what we do is: take a very big corpus, we look at the contexts in which words appear and we try to figure out which context is characteristic for that word. These are not simply the contexts appearing the most frequently with this word, but those proving to be particularly typical in comparison to other terms. This means that for ‘strawberry’ a characteristic context wouldn’t be ‘red,’ because too many things are red. But maybe ‘cream cheese tart’ and ‘picking by oneself.’

The European: How does that work concretely?

Herbelot: Some poems actually just used this, like the Gender poem. Some of them go one step further, which is to say: okay, what are the words which appear with the same characteristic contexts? Those words should be similar to the original one. If you enter ‘cat’ you’ll just find the things you would expect, like ‘dog’ and ‘mice.’ Unfortunately, when you get to more abstract things, you get things you were not necessarily aware of, but which are there in discourse. For example homosexuality: first thing you get is cannibalism – which is just reflecting the fact that obviously we don’t talk about these things in the same context, but the associations that are linked to those concepts are actually very similar.

Von Redecker: It’s not only because people talk about homosexuality and cannibalism in the same horrified way, it’s also because it’s something you do in some kind of desire that consumes your own kind – the sameness aspect. But I think the context, that both “destroys” the society and the controversy associated with it are also one reason why the relation comes up first.

The European: Which other relations did come up and first of all: when it comes to poetry, what can computers do differently unlike our human brain? What makes it so charming to let the computer do this poetic work?

Von Redecker: There is also this really surreal dream-logic, where the technology does something that humans would never do. The standard example: if you put in ‘lorry’ and ask the computer to give you words that share the same characteristic context, it says ‘trailer,’ ‘car,’ ‘motorbike,’ and ‘hamster.’ And you’re like: “Your system isn’t working.” The thing is that hamsters have wheels too, like the hamsterwheel. And so in a sense it’s true, and in another sense it’s really this surreal dream-logic which means there’s always some link, but it’s a bizarre one. Sometimes it’s really fun to try and then there is something as bizarre as: oh, hamsters have wheels. In surrealism and experimental poetry, there is a long tradition of automatic writing, because they thought they could access the sub-contexts this way and they also drugged themselves so much that they could barely hold the pencil, because somehow that gets them there – and in a very ironic way, using the machine actually gets you there, even though it sounds like such a cold and sober way. Because it can really reveal those glimpses without the subject, without the conscious human mind saying “Of course not, hamsters are not like lorries.” Getting rid of this censorship and revealing that logic is genuinely poetic.

The European: Nowadays eReaders are the next big thing, they’re sold very cheaply, and naturally eBooks are even cheaper than “real” books. Where did the idea come from to found PeerPress, a small and traditional publishing company – in a time when paper books are considered being more and more old-fashioned?

Von Redecker: In a way it’s precisely this moment where we have this very high level of technology and digitalized technology that allowed us to do that sort of micro-publishing-house in the way we wanted it. When we had this script and a lot of people encouraged us to do something with it, it sort of became obvious to us that we don’t want to give the copyright to someone. It just seems so idiotic to give it away. The digital pioneer open source community is very inspiring to use property and intellectual property in others ways, to share it and have a completely different economy there. What we do is: you can actually download the whole content for free. It’s not only something you can buy, it’s also part of a gift economy. The idea is that we try to make avaiable all content for free, and really bank on the fact that precisely in the moment, where you can download everything, books can be sort of fetishes. Books are beautiful gifts – who would give their friends an eBook for their birthday? People who have money are ready to pay money. Those who don’t, well I’m glad that at least they can “steal” the book from our website.

The European: I was wondering if that works. You’re giving it away for free – but do you really think people will become more traditional in a way that they want to read real books and not eBooks, and so they’re going to buy the book?

Von Redecker: Real books, you just want them on your table. We were just so thrilled by the idea that we could not only create sort of an art object and then give it away – the business model of PeerPress is also a creation. And I think we’re just as passionate about that as about the aesthetic value of the product. We don’t take any copyrights from the authors. So if they publish a book with us and then Bloomsbury gives them a deal, that is great. They can still print it, this belongs to the Creative Commons License. Basically, everyone can copy it, we just want them to mention our name and we don’t want them to use it commercially. I wish that most things were dealt with in this way. We do it together as friends, we’re giving it away and hoping that there is some revenue. It’s actually surprising how little money you need to do that. I mean, we were doing a lot of things on a non-monetary basis. We’re really not rich, but we had a bit of savings.

The European: Ethical and social principles seem to be very important to you – but PeerPress is only a small company: how could the book market as a whole be made more social, responsible, and fair?

Von Redecker: I really think that the book market has changed in a lot of ways. A hundred years ago the Hogarth Press emanated from a group of writing friends. Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard Woolf even bought a printing press and they started writing in the morning and printing in the afternoon. They even bound the books themselves. They bound them in giftwrapping paper because they couldn’t afford proper cover paper. That somehow managed to spread, because they had a good peer group. Most of the participants had been to Cambridge, they all knew people there and friends of friends who were willing to discuss their books, to encourage them, to criticise them and to suggest them to friends. They met all the time and they communicated and that was enough to sort of make it take off. And then came consumerism and capitalism and mass production and something completely different was needed. Today we have those huge publishing houses like Suhrkamp and you need this incredible advertisement effort to bundle the attention on one product. But we think that’s changing now. Because of the internet, the music market, for example, has changed immensely, especially for very small bands. The situation is a thousand times better than just a few years ago when all you could do was sit there and dream that the guy from the record company would come and give you a deal. The music market has already changed and we think that’s going to happen to the book market as well. And we just try to set an example.

Herbelot: I think what we need is just basically a central site on the internet where little publishers and bookshops can register and actually sell their stuff online. Like Ebay, but just for books, with reviews and with the same kind of packaging that you have on Amazon.

The European: ‘discourse.cpp’ was published in April 2011, that’s a year ago. Are there any new plans for the future, new books to be published?

Herbelot: There are definitely books to be published. But there is no money. So at the moment we have projects which are purely online, because it doesn’t cost anything. We’ve got a blog ‘Polygraphy’, via which our authors are knitting a collective autobiography, and a monthly cartoon: the main character is called Machine Gun Piglet.

Von Redecker: Machine Gun Piglet is this anarchist, queer animal who is very annoyed about little things in the world, like we are, but then she usually solves the problems with her gun. It’s actually so fascinating, because even though I think I’m a good feminist, it took me weeks to look at this cartoon creature and to refer to her as “she” because I was not used to a sort of gender neutral cartoon figure with a gun not being a “he” So people reading it really get a feminist brainwash. But there are also interesting projects: a novel about the Prague Spring written partly from the perspective of a pocket knife and an extraordinary book for English native speakers who want to learn German.

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