So, the whole @Horse_ebooks thing.
It’s very soon after the fact, and I imagine that there will be a great deal of piercingly insightful analysis and commentary being written in the next few days about it all. This pretends to be neither insightful nor analysis, though I imagine it might be fair to call it commentary. A lot of what I’ve seen so far amounts to people’s immediate emotional reactions to finding out that our favorite Twitter spambot wasn’t a bot or all that legitimately spammy and I’m afraid that this is going to fall at least sort of into that category, because of where it starts.
A lot of people seem upset. My initial emotional reaction to the whole @Horse_ebooks thing? My pure, unconsidered, genuine real non-digital lol reaction? Delight. Utter delight.
Not like I’m so much cooler than you, person-out-there-who-is-upset; I just think our differing reactions are interesting, and are interesting in conjunction with what @Horse_ebooks was and is.
Here’s why my predominant emotion regarding this matter is delight: Stories.
I’ve written what seems like books’ worth of words on stories on this blog, usually to argue that fiction is as useful a tool as “non”-fiction, as well as to question the distinction between the two in the first place. But behind all that verbiage is a kind of goofy, Sagan-esque enthusiasm for us as storytelling creatures, and the lengths to which we’ll go to wring meaning out of the most objectively “meaningless” things. We require stories to make sense of anything, of our own existence, of the passage of time, of tragedy and agony and joy, of endings and beginnings – which all stories have and no story ever has. We’re born and we start telling stories and when we fall into unconsciousness our brain tells itself more stories and then when we die people start telling stories about that.
On Twitter I called us “little sacs of walking pattern recognition algorithms” and I stand by that assessment. And that’s fantastic, in every sense of the word.
I look at the negative reactions to what’s happened with @Horse_ebooks and I can’t get away from the idea that the source of a lot of the discomfort is discovering that the story doesn’t mean what we thought it did – that, in fact, we weren’t the ones deciding what it meant (by the way, I think we still were), and even that we were unwitting parts of someone else’s story. As Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic says, “We thought we were obliging a program, a thing which needs no obliging, whereas in fact we were falling for a plan.”
I think that’s an interesting turn of phrase, “falling for”. As if we were duped. Which of course you could argue that people were; @Horse_ebooks wasn’t what it (mostly, to most of us) seemed to be. But being duped usually involves an element of betrayal, of malicious intent.
Here’s a thing that I think: That while we see patterns in the noise, half the time we know that’s exactly what we’re doing, and the fact that they’re our patterns makes them more meaningful to us. It’s the process of seeing, not just what’s seen, that makes what we bring back from it so significant.
If @Horse_ebooks is noise, then what’s found is special, meaningful, individual. If it isn’t noise, that calls all of the meaning and its making into question.
What I find especially weird about this – aside from the general wonderful weirdness of attaching so much emotional meaning to a supposed spambot Twitter account – is that it’s almost an inversion of the usual Digital Dualist thinking that we’ve catalogued here. Usually something human-created, human-generated, physical and intimate and person-to-person is what’s real and legitimate. I saw more than one person talk about this in terms of whether or not a “machine” could generate “art”. Yet in this case the discovery that there’s really an intentional human behind it all is disillusioning, and meaning itself seems to be taking a hit.
The thing is, what we thought was “pure” machine has turned out to be what it was all along: not “pure” anything. Some combination of a person and a screen and a system of interface. The exact details of how those things have all come together varies, but the general equation is the same. As David Banks asked on Twitter: At what point do we say that @Horse_ebooks is or is not human?
I think that’s what I find oddest about this whole flurry of reactions: The idea that we had a real thing, and it isn’t what we thought it was, so now it’s not a real thing anymore. The idea that there ever was a “real” thing to begin with. And the idea that, in order for our thing that we made to be real, there had to be some kind of correct understanding of the real thing that our thing came from. That now our thing is less real because we were wrong.
Look, man, I dunno. I don’t know what’s going to happen to us and @Horse_ebooks. I don’t know if we’re gonna be okay (probably); it’s late as I write this and I’ve had some wine and I’m worried I might be wandering into word-vomit territory here. I just know that I look back on “everything happens so much” and “inside every dog there exists a perfect” and part of me still nods its head and goes hey man yeah and that hasn’t gone away. Something that I thought probably worked a certain way doesn’t seem to have worked that way; if anything, I’m just reminded of how incredible our brains are and their slightly melancholy tendency to put us in positions to be let down. But a million monkeys can make something amazing, sure; look at yourself.
We’ll always have SMELL SMELL SMELL GOOD NEW NEW NEW slice drink MATCH SPARKLER (thrown in air) STARS STARS STARS
Sarah is probably not a bot on Twitter though really who the hell knows anymore – @dynamicsymmetry
Emily — September 25, 2013
Thanks for this article, Sarah. I'm a tumblrite myself, and I've seen a lot of posts about people who are annoyed or unhappy about this news, and I think you've done a really good job pinpointing what it is that has made people so uncomfortable with this big reveal.
I also feel a little behind on the times - I always assumed @Horse_ebooks was a person or a company, and that it would just run forever. Knowing that there's more to come, I think it's really exciting, and I hope others feel that way too after the initial confusion.
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