Jonathan Swift’s Word Machine

75dfa2819ca68a724611bad9d34c83f1I’m fascinated by this. The satirist Jonathan Swift imagined something called The Engine in Gulliver’s Travels, first published in 1726. What The Engine did was to create texts; it was Swift’s ironic barb, suggesting that a mere machine could compete against and even overcome the words of contemporary authors. Let’s leave aside the obvious thought today about the idea: that in our Bladerunner world, machines might begin to create stories with which to soothe us to sleep. Let’s pretend that’s actually not going to happen.

Instead, I’ve been playing with a contemporary version of The Engine created by Dr. Kenneth I. Laws and Raphael Großmaß here: The Lagado Machine. What their machine does is to take inputted text and to allow for a random machine resampling of that text.

I chose the first three paragraphs of my favourite novel, The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. Here are Ford’s first three paragraphs:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy—or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

I don’t mean to say that we were not acquainted with many English people. Living, as we perforce lived, in Europe, and being, as we perforce were, leisured Americans, which is as much as to say that we were un-American, we were thrown very much into the society of the nicer English. Paris, you see, was our home. Somewhere between Nice and Bordighera provided yearly winter quarters for us, and Nauheim always received us from July to September. You will gather from this statement that one of us had, as the saying is, a “heart”, and, from the statement that my wife is dead, that she was the sufferer.

Captain Ashburnham also had a heart. But, whereas a yearly month or so at Nauheim tuned him up to exactly the right pitch for the rest of the twelvemonth, the two months or so were only just enough to keep poor Florence alive from year to year. The reason for his heart was, approximately, polo, or too much hard sportsmanship in his youth. The reason for poor Florence’s broken years was a storm at sea upon our first crossing to Europe, and the immediate reasons for our imprisonment in that continent were doctor’s orders. They said that even the short Channel crossing might well kill the poor thing.

What fascinates me is that, each time I input those three paragraphs into the Lagado Machine, I get different opening sentences to compete with Ford’s famous opening sentence: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

Here’s a few:

“The reason for his heart.”

“I don’t mean to keep poor thing.”

“But, whereas a good glove’s with many English.”

“But, we knew nothing whatever.”

In their different ways, the Machine’s opening sentences compete admirably with Ford’s. There is a chilly resonance blowing through, as though Ford were woken from his sleep to fight off this new competition. Where this might take us, heaven only knows.