[Image: Wiring the ENIAC; via Wired]
One of many things I love about writing—that is, engaging in writing as an activity—is how it facilitates a discovery of connections between otherwise unrelated things. Writing reveals and even relies upon analogies, metaphors, and unexpected similarities: there is resonance between a story in the news and a medieval European folktale, say, or between a photo taken in a war-wrecked city and an 18th-century landscape painting. These sorts of relations might remain dormant or unnoticed until writing brings them to the foreground: previously unconnected topics and themes begin to interact, developing meanings not present in those original subjects on their own.
Wildfires burning in the Arctic might bring to mind infernal images from Paradise Lost or even intimations of an unwritten J.G. Ballard novel, pushing a simple tale of natural disaster to new symbolic heights, something mythic and larger than the story at hand. Learning that U.S. Naval researchers on the Gulf Coast have used the marine slime of a “300-million-year old creature” to develop 21st-century body armor might conjure images from classical mythology or even from H.P. Lovecraft: Neptunian biotech wed with Cthulhoid military terror.
In other words, writing means that one thing can be crosswired or brought into contrast with another for the specific purpose of fueling further imaginative connections, new themes to be pulled apart and lengthened, teased out to form plots, characters, and scenes.
In addition, a writer of fiction might stage an otherwise straightforward storyline in an unexpected setting, in order to reveal something new about both. It’s a hard-boiled detective thriller--set on an international space station. It’s a heist film--set at the bottom of the sea. It’s a procedural missing-person mystery--set on a remote military base in Afghanistan.
Thinking like a writer would mean asking why things have happened in this way and not another—in this place and not another—and to see what happens when you begin to switch things around. It’s about strategic recombination.
I mention all this after reading a new essay by artist and critic James Bridle about algorithmic content generation as seen in children’s videos on YouTube. The piece is worth reading for yourself, but I wanted to highlight a few things here.
In brief, the essay suggests that an increasingly odd, even nonsensical subcategory of children’s video is emerging on YouTube. The content of these videos, Bridle writes, comes from what he calls “keyword/hashtag association.” That is, popular keyword searches have become a stimulus for producing new videos whose content is reverse-engineered from those searches.