Last update: 09 September 2016
Designed by DBBD
Index of Works
Other Works
Back to Top ↑

Ghost Trap

For people following my social media updates and reading all of the gratuitous amount of information and digital flotsam that I generate each and every day, this might constitute all of the contact that some people might ever see or hear of Debbie. My digital footprint could be, in some ways, the only surviving evidence of Debbie.

But what if Debbie wasn't there but a machine or script continued generating and posting what I would probably say on my blog, and posting location information about Debbie? Would people still believe in the ghost of Debbie?

In 1996, I made my first terrible website on Geocities, and for the better part of my life, I've always been fascinated with generating and collecting data about myself - endless spreadsheets, tables, Geocities pages, Angelfire, Tripod, Diaryland, Livejournal, Blogs, Vlogs, Tumblr, Blogger, Diet Logs, Consumption Logs, GPS logs, Pedometers, Fitbits, Pebbles, Quantified Self, etc. I also constantly upload to my flickr, wiki, and blog at OpenUrbanism. Today, sharing lots of information about yourself online is pretty common, but from the beginning the purpose of my data collection has always been quite antisocial. Instead, I have always preferred to think of myself as an isolated data point rather than media node, an snippet of data that somehow remains inscrutable even under machine analysis.

A collection of webcam shots, 2009
I was given the challenge of designing a "ghost trap" in 2013 as part of an entrance exam for the postgraduate programme that I eventually went to and graduated from. As I don't believe in ghosts, I felt that for me the term "ghost" definitely relates more to issues of the agency of technology and machines, and remote and digital presence. I decided to do an experiment in which I would take all of the text I had written on my blog for the last few years and run it through a markov chain to see what the output would be like.

A Markov text generator uses a markov chain to generate the next word in a sentence. The choice of the next word only depends on the current last word, and not on the entire sentence of all the words before that, and so in that sense it does not have memory ("markov property") despite often seeming to be smarter or more complex than it actually is. What is interesting is that this is a very simple process, and at no point does the machine ever actually understand the rules of English grammar. Instead, we find that even if the text produced by the generator is slightly ungrammatical, we are willing to look past minor errors in order to read and try to understand the sentence.


Ghost Input

Ghost Output

The official archive begins in earnest.
It was flanked by a beautiful idea.
A mystery, almost unreachable, how would one truly understand what was underneath.
No doubt, it remains indefensible that the whole land surface
  is becoming covered by the text and the rocks to form fossils.
We looked at the top of skyscrapers.
To the north, the Pinson and Montmorency hills edge the horizon.
Behind them, there are a series of diptychs in which economic growth and
  development cannot prosper.
This is said to have such segregated spheres of use.
Its slipping away fast from me!
At first, one is obsessively googling me now - but they could be!
Unfortunately, as people who have the oldest, the most scathing vitrol;
  in a hospital you can see the traces of gunpowder.
However, the woman is letting her cigarette burn out quicker than it should
  by sticking it into her final novel, Persuasion.
This was proving to be encroaching with its disease of sameness all across england,
  and that would have the name of the above.
After an exuberant expedition through the various assemblages of images and actors
  that were to be an important source of local quarry stone, I found the words
  tumbling out of cardboard in spaces - the rocks that I am ever-so-slightly attracted.
All that remains of these interventions is the same to be buried again,
  as some paean to an art history book.
After generating this text, that night I went to bed, and had a dream about visiting the house of an old friend. Browsing through his bookshelf, I picked up a 2nd hand copy of Jerome Rothenberg's The Lorca Variations - a book of poems which had been assigned reading in the first literature class I had ever taken at university. I have to admit that at the time I had not been very fond of this book, having found it to be quite tedious, and after the module I had even attempted to sell the book off to other incoming literature students.

In the dream, I discovered that the copy of Lorca Variations was the exact copy of the book which I thought I had sold off some years ago after university - the same blue book with a golden sticker on its front cover. Even stranger still, it appears that I had been using the book as a diary, and some incredibly personal diary entries of mine were scrawled inbetween the printed lines of the pages! My words were mixed up between the lines of Rothenberg's poems, which in turn were actually the result of Rothenberg (who had been translating the works of ) approprating and rearranging items from Lorca's vocabulary into his own poems!