“Did you hear about @Horse_ebooks? Can you believe it?”
I’ve had several conversations in the past few days that have followed this script. Unlike those of some other people, however, my answers to those questions are yes and yes. Maybe I have an anachronistic belief in the prevailing power and creativity of humans. Maybe it’s because I don’t understand what a spambot is. But in any case, after the initial shock, I found that I thought that not only did it make sense that @Horse_ebooks was a promotional performance piece, but I thought it was actually pretty ingenious.
To go back a step, @Horse_ebooks is a Twitter handle that, up to this week, was assumed to produce its random, nonsensical, but oddly entertaining and profound materials through the use of an automated spambot. The random strings of text were supposed to be phrases of existing published material taken out of context to avoid the detection of the account as a provider of promotional links to websites that sell e-books.
“Everything happens so much,” “Why you should think twice about painting the walls in your house anything,” and “Discuss” are some examples of @Horse_ebooks tweets.
On Tuesday, these seemingly meaningless phrases were given slightly more meaning when Buzzfeed employee Jacob Bakkila revealed that the whole project was part of an extended performance piece along with Thomas Bender’s Pronunciation Book, another previously anonymous Internet sensation. The next step of their project, according to The New Yorker, will be an interactive-video art piece called Bear Stearns Bravo, a phrase which is also the content of the last tweet from the @Horse_ebooks Twitter account.
The discourse on the subject has generally been one of disappointment and disbelief.
“This is incredibly disappointing. Indeed, it’s crushing. Some self-satisfied clever NYers bought and ruined a great thing. A Great Thing,” one commenter on the New Yorker article wrote.
Wait. Wasn’t it people like the very self-satisfied clever NYers who made @Horse_ebooks the sensation it was? Are we to decry the whole enterprise now that it has been revealed to be art at best, advertising at worst, and in any case, not the work of a robot? Why would people be happier if this wealth of content were created by a machine instead of a person?
Maybe we were happy to imagine that a robot could reach the level of sophistication that would enable it to evoke amusement or contemplation in humans. Maybe we were entertained by the meaning we thought we were pulling from the meaningless.
I am not that surprised to learn that the content of @Horse_ebooks was created by a human. It was about time that someone decided to trouble the boundaries between chaos and order, between fact and fiction, in the context of emerging technology. We are still learning how to interpret the vast amount of unintelligible information that exists online, and this is forcing us to realize our own ability to be manipulated. People have long since realized that nothing on the Internet can be taken for granted, but perhaps we were becoming complacent and not scrutinizing phenomena like this enough. We know that certain too-good-to-be-true Youtube videos are indeed just that, but why aren’t we more cynical when it comes to text?
If anything, we have less reason to believe the written word online—and, for that matter, in print—as the only information we get is a string of words that we assume to be a name, and that we accept the person behind that name has written another string of words. The disillusionment people feel as a result of this revelation could spark a new wave of cynicism about material online, and I would argue that that’s a good thing.
It also makes more sense on logical and historical levels that a human produced all the tweets. It hearkens back to Dada’s embrace of the random, to the Futurist efforts to replicate the machine in art, and to the Surrealist impulse to explore the subconscious and psychological worlds. We’ve seen these trends in art before, and I don’t think this is all that different. The love we have for the randomness of the machine can be best represented by the creative human mind.
Even if it is advertising, I think it’s brilliant. I think it absolutely makes sense for this specific moment in the history of humans and technology. It gathered its audience and grabbed people’s attention in a perfect and viral way, which is an area in which advertising can struggle. It’s a perfect catalyst event to make us question the relationship we have to robots, to technology, and to art. It shakes the expectations we have for each other and for technology. It has already brought up discussions of why we are disappointed in a human endeavor, what selling out means, and how much we should consider the intention of the artist when experiencing art.
The event should spark a wave of cynicism and disillusionment with the Internet and a renewed belief in the power of people, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
Bradach is a member of the class of 2015.