May 31, 2008

Provocation by Program: Imagining a Next-Revolution Eliza

by Nick Montfort · , 12:17 pm

By Nick Montfort and Andrew Stern

(This is the text of the talk we gave at the ELO Visionary Landscapes conference just now. Mark Marino already has a reply online.)


In the 1960s, Eliza, and specifically that system running the famous Doctor script to impersonate a psychotherapist, prompted conversations and controversies about anthropomorphic concepts of the computer, artificial intelligence and natural language understanding, user interfaces, and even psychotherapy. Decades later, Janet Murray hailed the system as the first electronic literature work, saying it was at that point still the most important one. All this was the result of a rather small amount of code that lacked multimedia elements, contained very little pre-written text, and was developed by a single person, Joseph Weizenbaum.

We begin by assuming that computation and literary art are inherently very powerful. That is, we assume it is not essential to have recourse to networked communication, massive knowledge bases, or even graphics capabilities to develop a provocative, affecting project that inquires about important issues. In thinking about a such a project, we are seeking an antidote to today’s ever larger and complex computer applications — sixty-hour game quests within expansive virtual worlds, mashups of intricate Web technologies, and massively feature-bloated operating systems. A small yet powerful and surprising computer program would be both pleasurable and provocative because of its simplicity and clean concept. So we simply assume, rather than trying to prove, that while more elaborate systems may be interesting in some ways, a new system on the scale of Eliza can still have the sort of broad impact today that Weizenbaum’s computer character did more than forty years ago. Given that, we ask, what specific qualities would this system have?

Of course, there are plenty of programs that are more or less directly descended from Eliza. These include conversational characters (such as A.L.I.C.E.) as well as task-oriented dialogue systems (such the automated Amtrak agent Julie that you can call and speak to right now at 1-800-USA-RAIL). There are also digital artworks that specifically refer to and rework Weizenbaum’s concept, such as Adrianne Wortzel’s Eliza Redux. We are not imagining programs along these lines as we think about a possible Eliza for the 2000s or 2010s. Instead, we will focus on the qualities that made Eliza a provocative and influential piece of literary art in its time and context. We are not thinking of a new chatterbot; we are interested in imagining a system that would introduce a new form, like that of the chatterbot, and that would inspire reworking and reimagining by artists, as Eliza did.

Six Important Aspects of Eliza

While different writers, artists, and programmers might identify different aspects of Eliza as central, we believe that we have identified six that would be shared by a similarly high-impact program today. Some of these may be fairly obvious; others seem to us to much much less evident and much less frequently discussed, if they have been discussed at all. The important properties of Eliza that we have identified are:

  1. Engaging deeply with language.
  2. Dealing with a fundamental issue, concern, anxiety, or question about computing and technology.
  3. Being interactive and immediate — impressing the interactor in an instant.
  4. Being understandable after more effort is applied and the program is explored further.
  5. Being general to different computer platforms and easily ported.
  6. Being process-intensive — driven by computation rather than data.

Next, we discuss each of these aspects of Eliza in a bit more detail, explaining why we think each of these was important to Eliza’s effect:

Other Important Systems and the Qualities They Share

We now look to several other computer systems, small-scale and large-scale, that have become part of the zeitgeist, and we consider which of these qualities they have and which they lack. These high-impact systems are not restricted to literary ones; in fact, we did not select any system that was mainly framed as literary.

Of course, these systems had some important characteristics that Eliza didn’t — in certain cases they could be sold as computer games, or connected to advertising to form the basis of a profitable business, and so on. It does seem, however, that elements of their success and influence were shared in common with Eliza. If we were looking to stage a Cold War demonstration or deploy a hit video game, we might consider a different set of attributes, but we believe Eliza’s qualities are particularly worth considering for those of us who are involved with digital writing, with imaginative and poetic uses of language.

Directions for Impactful E-Lit

To conclude, we will identify the types of electronic literary practice that we believe most likely to have Eliza-like impact. All sorts of literary practices are well situated to engage language, and many practices also deal with questions about computing technologies and their situation in society. The remaining four aspects are not shared equally by works coming from different electronic literature practices.

Electronic literature authors often try to invite deep reading and to reward lengthy exploration; perhaps because the involvement of a committed reader is valued over an initial glance, impressing the interactor right away is seldom an important goal. But literary art on the computer can make an immediate impression: While the hypertexts of the Eastgate school offer a great deal to the careful reader, William Gillespie, Scott Rettberg, and Dirk Stratton’s The Unknown grabs and slaps the reader more or less immediately with its humor and metafiction, no matter what page is selected.

In terms of yielding to understanding, some of the art and literary works that are initially the least understandable actually display this quality the most clearly. Jodi’s maze of broken websites can increasingly be seen to display the logic of the Web; Ben Benjamin’s Superbad can be understood as an ecstasy of mid-1990s Web design; the malfunctions of Dan Shiovitz’s Bad Machine give information about the virtual situation as the interactor learns more about them.

Generality and portability are very seldom valued in electronic literature practice, but there are some signs that this is changing. Rob Kendall’s X-Literature prototype is an important step toward abstracting the functioning of hypertext-like works, and, aside from offering preservation benefits, should urge electronic literature authors of all sorts to think about the essentials of how their works function.

The least process intensive electronic literature works are often held up as paradigms, but Eliza is not alone in being computational and working in literary ways. With regard to emphasizing computation over data, computational poetry, interactive fiction, interactive drama, and creative text generation practices are more process intensive, more Eliza-like, and most likely to connect computing and culture in the way that Weizenbaum’s program did.

Of course, many electronic literature authors seek to express an imaginative world or poetic concept in other ways, without modeling aspects of language in an interactive program. Eliza-scale provocation is not a goal shared by everyone. But we hope that our analysis of Eliza, performed from our standpoint as computer literary artists, is nevertheless of interest to certain provocateurs.