Nick Montfort Talks Computers, Literature and #!

Nick Montfort reads alongside projections of his work at the Rhode Island School of Design.EXPAND
Nick Montfort reads alongside projections of his work at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Courtesy Nick Montfort

Nick Montfort, computational poet, creative programmer and MIT professor, has spent much of his career exploring the connections between computing and literature and talking about those connections everywhere from Brazil to St. Petersburg to the Google campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tonight he’s in Denver to read from and discuss #! (pronounced "shebang") at the Dikeou Pop-Up: Colfax space. The event is co-hosted by Counterpath Press, which also published #!, a work that consists of a series of alterable computer programs that generate poetic texts. In advance of his reading, we talked with Montfort about the impetus behind #!, and the long intertwined history of computing and literature. 

Westword: When do you first draw connections between literature and computing?

Montfort: There were types of computer games that were really prevalent in the early 1980s that were interactive fiction: adventure games, text adventures. And so you had a system that was very involved with narrative, and the same types of writing, even in the same types of genres that were popular for young people of my age to read, that were involved in these pieces of software. And you would participate by exploring these fictional worlds, by typing into the systems and discovering new things about the environment, maybe testing your understanding of it, maybe trying to figure out how things worked. I thought at the time that it was a literary type of activity, a literary type of production, but also one that involved computing, very simply. This is already an example that was out there in culture, it wasn’t a special discovery or breakthrough I made. This was common at the time.

At this time there was also this system called Racter. You could purchase a version of Racter as home-computer software. It was basically a chatterbot, you could talk to the system. It wasn’t like a customer-service phone screen – it wasn’t making reservations for you…. It was just reveling in these strange textures of language that could be used to create this conversation. There’s a famous book that was generated using Racter called the Policeman’s Beard Is Half-Constructed. So that is one of the candidates for one of the first computer-generated books of poetry. You know, I wasn’t as involved with that type of intersection between literature and computing as [I was with] interactive fiction. But that was also there, it was in popular culture. It wasn’t strange or esoteric. I think I first saw Racter at an Apple Expo, where they were featuring different types of software. That was just another thing that was happening at the time, that was fairly ordinary. So it didn’t seem like a big deal to me that there were intersections happening and stuff going on connecting computing and literature.

Contemporary users don’t have to access code to operate computers. Is that one reason why your work might seem even more novel today than it might’ve in the '80s?

Yes, I think that is a major issue. The packaging, the ease of use, [and] the encapsulation of computing make it simple, so you don’t have to worry about things [that are] less straightforward. The side effect of that is that people don’t see the possibilities to participate in computing in the way that a writer might: “Here’s a technique the author’s using that I can also use in my writing.” [You’re] just putting the computer on the desk and playing games.

Looking at Apple II or Commodore 64 games, you couldn’t very easily or in a straightforward way reprogram everything. But you could write your own interactive fiction game – it might not be as good – and that was something I did, and many other people I know did as well.
And there were programs you could type in for magazines that allowed you to do something that was similar… and you could see how the pieces were put together and you could learn from that, about fictional literary experiences and also about games and computing.
I think this a tremendous downside: the commodification of computing. The attitude you see at the Apple store, everything is presented to you as very strongly regulated and commodified apps and people don’t have any reason to question or to try to modify or write their own. This is a really disappointing thing to me about computing culture today. The apple computer that I programmed on – the Apple 2d - -was a very different system. You didn’t need tools at all to open the case… The system was radically open.

Can you talk about !# and what you’ll be doing with Counterpath tonight?

I present work where the program output from it is projected, and I also read the text that is being produced. Sometimes it seems a little bit redundant to both show this text visually with a project and have someone read from it (although I’m not always reading the same texts that are appearing on the screen). But the point of that is to make clear the form this type of work takes. It is a computer program – it runs, it's also the text that’s produced from it, it is something that can be read, that can be read, can be pronounced… Sometimes we see people on the computer who are hesitating to see [programming] as something literary. It’s worth reading, it’s worth pronouncing.

Nick Montfort occasionally holds workshops where he instructs audiences on how to alter the programming that runs #!, although tonight’s event won’t have time for that; Montfort will be reading with three other authors: Michael Friedman, Graham Foust and Sanaz Fatemi. Adventurous programmer-poets can access some of Montfort's coding online, however, at his website. The readings start at 7 p.m. at the Dikeou Pop-Up space at 312 East Colfax Avenue. Visit counterpathpress.org for more information.


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