January 30, 2008

EP 2.1: Meeting Eliza

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 6:37 am

When I was a teenager — in the 1980s — my mother bought a personal computer. It was an impressive machine for the day, decked out with two floppy drives, a dot matrix printer, a Hayes modem, and a monochrome amber display. At first I only used the machine for some minor programming experiments (in Basic and later Pascal), writing for school (in WordStar), and a few games. But that mysterious modem sat there. Probably intended to let my mother exchange data with the big Digital Equipment Corporation machines she had in her lab at the university, I knew modems could also be used for other things.

This was about a decade before the Internet began to make its way into homes like ours, and I had no interest in the manicured gardens of services like The Source or CompuServe. Rather than any long-distance journey, I wanted to use the modem to explore the local wilderness, to visit the unruly home BBS scene sprouting in the dens and basements of my neighbors.

While largely forgotten today, a BBS — short for “Bulletin Board System” — was the online destination of choice for 1980s teenagers. Most were run by individuals out of their homes: computer enthusiasts with machines much more powerful than ours, hooked to one or more dedicated phone lines. A user like me could call into a BBS, read messages, leave messages, download and upload files, play text-based games, and (if the owner of the BBS was at their computer, or if someone called in to one of the other phone lines) have real-time conversations, with total strangers, in text. In other words, the BBS wasn’t just a file repository. It was a window into what has now become obvious: the incredible social potential of combining computers and networks, which has given us email, instant messaging, wikis, blogs, social networking websites, and much more.

Given the glimpse of this potential, a BBS with multiple lines could feel a little lonely when no one else was on. But then one day I was over at the house of a childhood friend (we no longer went to the same school) and he showed me that, on his computer, conversation was always waiting. He showed me a program he’d downloaded from a BBS. He introduced me to Eliza.

Eliza today

Eliza — or, more properly, Eliza/Doctor — is a groundbreaking system created by computer science researcher Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT in the mid-1960s. In the two decades between when Weizenbaum created the system and I experienced it at my friend’s house, it had become one of the world’s most famous demonstrations of the potential of computing. First unveiled years before HAL 9000’s screen debut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it seemed that Eliza made it possible to have a real conversation with a computer.

In the computer science literature, under the name Eliza, Weizenbaum’s system is a contribution to the field of natural language processing. On the other hand, when Eliza plays Doctor it is a well-known computer character, famous far beyond computer science, often also known by the name Eliza. And Eliza also has a third common usage in the computer world: “the Eliza effect.” This has generally been a term used to describe the not-uncommon illusion that an interactive computer system is more “intelligent” (or substantially more complex and capable) than it actually is. One of my purposes in this chapter is to revisit the Eliza effect and give it a further nuance, so that it names not only this initial illusion but also the authorial choice that comes with it: severely restricted interaction (on the one hand) or eventual breakdown that takes a form based on the actual underlying processes (on the other).

In the next chapter, with an examination of the Eliza effect as background, I will look at the options selected by today’s authors of digital fictions — particularly for computer games. These generally put aside the Eliza effect in favor of systems that more clearly communicate their structures to audiences. However, there are two problems with these that I will consider. Some of them employ processes that, while legible, tend toward a non-Eliza form of breakdown. Others, while avoiding breakdown, have very low ambitions in their use of computational processes. More ambitious routes will be the focus of the remaining chapters of this book.

But, for now, I’ll start with the illusion.