On The Paths of Nonsense

GPT-3 Generated Design-Fiction

Experiments in applied science fiction
Stories as a design process
In one ear out the other

For a little extra context, I have been experimenting with writing my own design-fiction stories as a process of exploring different design questions and possible futures. While playing around with GPT-3 (when it was still free-to-use) I thought it would be fascinating to use the language model to generate hundreds of these stories. Where my own writing process explores an idea in-depth, this AI-assisted process does not replace but rather complements it with a broader breadth of exploration.

I wrote out a list of questions that came to mind regarding interfaces and the future of technology, many questions paralleling ones I was myself thinking about with my project at the time. I left the prompt running and spent many hours scouring through story upon storyOkay, I may have stayed up all night. No book I’ve read has ever left me this enthralled.

At this point I realized with tinge of horror that AI-produced content does not need to be good or better than what people can create. There is a special kind of engagement it creates—that of newness and sense of control over the process. That I could simply generate ten more pages of stories at the slightest press of a button, kept me coming back for more again and again.

It was like fast-food of the mind.

, through tens of thousands of words, and saving particular ones I resonated with to a document which I named “On The Paths of Nonsense.” This page is the result of a second pass, taking only the stories which I still feel are interesting or worth reading in some way. The highlights of the highlights so-to-speak.

Hope you enjoy.

What does the future dictionary look like?

It hits the page like a bomb, collapsing into itself suddenly, annihilating everything around it, only to rise and expand once again, like a great pillar holding the entire structure aloft. And as you turn the page, the column inches and the vast meaty instruction words litter it like the pages of an ancient manuscript. But not just one book. Not preserved words here but living words here that change as you change:Words that change as you change

the language, bleeding from your pages’ wounds and body and mouth and teeth. Speaking. This is the future dictionary. It blooms and it dies every time you use itBeautifully evocative. That this was one of the first stories generated may have helped spark me to continue exploring—even if not all the stories contain any interesting ideas, at least some of them will be beautifully written

; evaporating words every time you turn a page. It has grown out of the flesh of your hand.

What does the future dictionary look like?

You find yourself reading easily in the new semantic web. Words have taken on whole new meanings. As you learn, you reach out and touch the words to see what they look like. They are found in an entirely separate layer, one above the actual page. You can pull the words up, and they flash across your screen. You can zoom in to read a word, or you can view it on an audio modeFlexible interfaces, multiple views and representations. The ability to switch between and explore the interface in any which way you’d like

. When you hear a word, a list of familiar words come up that you can choose from. And you can also pick a voice to hear instead of the word itself: this is an accurate audio recording of the individual saying the word. You can have it emphatic, whispering, or you can have it read the word aloud. And then when you click on this word, it is replaced with the frequency with which you encounter this word. In other words, you are holding in your hand a dictionary that is personalized to youI have to say, I love the idea of a dictionary that is personalized to you. In some ways that is what I’m trying to do with my own personal dictionary

.

What does the future dictionary look like?

The next time you attend a marketing or design conference, do yourself a favour. Approach the marketing people and ask, “Tell me you have a list of the words that you are planning to use this year.”I’d like to actually do this! Imagine for the new year compiling together a list of words that you’re planning to use and incorporate into your vocabulary that year, and possibly another list of words to stay away from…

They will look at you as if you have three heads — these people are rarely trained in the language of strategic thinking. They are prepared to meet anyone, pay anyone, throw any money at you, to buy your ads, to buy your space. They broadcast their assumptions with every piece of print, every image, and they don’t have a list of the words they plan to use this year. You can almost hear them thinking, “But I’m so busy.“

What does the future dictionary look like?

It’s a world of contradictions all woven together, textures, hues, sounds, visual elementsAh I love this. The dictionary is more than just words, it contains all the senses, and a tapestry of contradictions

. New words mean new ideas. Words with flesh are different from those made in the virtual world. There are many different elements to consider: aesthetics, typography, meanings and connotations. We are loaning many words from the world of interactive film and digital games: modular, voxel, propylon, contextual, interactivity, narratology. Modern technology allows us to borrow vocabulary from many other new environments and communicate completely new conceptsI wonder in what ways modern technology allows us (in a way that could not have been done before) to communicate completely new concepts. Is is simply through a larger range of media to take metaphors and analogies from, or perhaps a greater ability to express ourselves with technology and thus to express new ideas. Imagine for example a multimedia dictionary where words are not so much “defined” as simply expressed through sounds and imagery…

. This process of discovery and innovation continues. We are required now to investigate our own thinking, to find technology that enables us to step into the shoes of the observer in order to make things. To not only describe but understand and develop alternate ways of knowing and communication. This is part of our work now: building languages and creating environments.

How do you explore your own data, files, etc.?

You’re in exploring mode. Not hopelessly lost. Simply awake and propelled along an unseen path of mutation of your own construction. For everything is experiment here. Building is your mantra. Negation is your embodiment. Merging is an ongoing theme. To merge is to create. To create is to explore. And the tools are there to merge and explore efficiently to shape the ship of thought on your own terms without ever leaving the port of your own consciousness. Your tracks snake like streams of current of power throughout your document to guide and shape and seize and shape. Build. Shapes that enclose darker regions than the surface of a lake, building up like grand processions of a ship sailing on the sea of memory. Faster. Think faster. Beyond the ships of thought you flatten your terrain of cursor trails across your dry white sand, breaking down walls of somatic memory to reveal the hidden history of places long forgotten, leaving cracks in the wall of forgetting where light of new knowledge can break through. You breathe ideas like water into the air and take in the incalculable riches washing along in an amniotic fluid of possibility flooding the open vessel of memory.

How do you explore your own data, files, etc.?

As I type, and more text emerges I hold my hand in front of my body and use my residual vision to see my hand, to pick up individual, disconnected letters. I repeat to myself the word which I have just typed, I can feel the beginning and end of the word disappearing beneath the rub of my fingertips, wafting off my palm for a short, one second, interlude. It takes effort. PracticeI like the idea that interfaces that take practice, effort, and concentration, just like any physical craft

. Eventually I master these letters. A layer on which I can orient myself. Call it first mime, and beginning metatext, which is more than a period of context. Now I scan my files by sightOnce you’ve mastered the interface you can be more efficient

, using photographs and an end-to-end directory of the files to navigate my applications, to place myself.

How do you switch between different workspaces or contexts?

You focus your eyes softly, set your lungs to the rhythm of the new environment, and as your breath downs, you feel your eyes deploy. The first work-space comes into focus, the one you’d been using just moments before. In an instant you are back, in your current environment, but also another, and another, and another. And as you move between them, you are not in the world you know, but a cascading cloud of realitiesooh I like this: “a cascading cloud of realities”

, worlds between the worlds. And as you move, your eyes hurt, they ache. They are tired, they are tired of being everything. You are so tired, but you are not sure…

How does one navigate the landscape of knowledge?

There are many routes to different cognitive objects — locations within your own memory, certainly, but also in the memory of others. But what if those memories were structured in different ways, hidden or transposed or simply made difficult to find. What if you were only provided with partial information, in an order you could order? What if you could decide which order to find it in?

With over 2.5 million vehicles on Australia’s roads, we see way more than cognitive objects. We see zones of attention, zones of free-flow traffic, high-risk intersections, and much, much more. But information about these concepts is simply not an easy task to process. Relationships are hard to see and represent, especially when they change at different rates or their nature is abstract. We want to see all of these variables, to simplify things and make it easier for us to make a decision on the spot. Now comes the twist. What if our “decision-making shortcut” was not a shortcut at all, but a way to completely escape the flow and travel deeper? We need a new kind of data visualization, a new way of representing spatial knowledge.

The solution is four-dimensional data visualization. By surrounding a path we want to track with a dynamic set of contours, we can easily visualize the first meaningful features of the situation — the object of our attention — without obscuring the others. Imagine our data visualization as a kaleidoscopereally, just try to imagine this!

that, when twisted, reflects objects in four dimensions. And since each object and its observers exist in a different plane, we can also express other mathematical formations in our visualization. Think of the equation for the shape of the orbit of a celestial body around a star or the geometry of the Sierpinski tetrahedron. Mathematicians could spend a lifetime representing visualizations like these.

The interface looks like this: we see a scene, but instead of a traditional map view with a continuous sweep of exploration, we break up into different directions of motion — four-dimensional paths, like a game of Marco Polo. There is a path that moves from highlighted leftmost point to the rightmost highlight, one that moves from the highlighted topmost point to the highlighted bottommost point, one that moves from the highlighted bottommost point to the highlighted topmost point, and one that moves diagonally from the bottommost highlight to the topmost highlightthe description of this interface was the seed that sparked my own imagination to come up with an idea for my starfish color picker interface experiment

. One or more of these paths are generated to help guide your attention to the important points.

For example, to compare different countries, we could travel down the longest path from the bottom highlight to the top highlight, or up the longest path to the top highlight from the bottom highlight. These paths are essentially sequences of instructions to remember: if you move in this direction along this path, you will reach the highlight. As you traverse the path, information about the different zones of attention become visible. You could see at any time what countries are on your list or how closely your choices represent the true choices. These paths are the foundation of our new form of visual terminal, a tool for processing spatial knowledgeA visual terminal, a tool for processing spatial knowledge!!

, one that is more intuitive, more playful, more communicative, and more adaptable than anything that has come before.

Sometimes, it is difficult to empathize with the difficulties of others, and this is especially true in the realm of design. Designers are often separated from regular people by lofty educational standards, or they are consumed by the design process itself — not really seeing the flaws inherent in their knowledge. The designer can be a mere distance away from the user and still be unable to take the user’s perspective.

Question: How does one navigate the landscape of knowledge?

It’s fuzzy. From this view, there is no separation between the real world and the data worlds. It’s all one thing. Everything is data, this is data, and the participants in a conversation are, in the big data sense, meaningless, lost in the noise of messages. You have entered the Internet of Things, and indeed this is your life — you just forgot it. All your digital life is now lived at the frequency of technology, with all the noise and need for attention. The page scrolls, pulsing like a heartbeat, passing by everything you just saw yet again, yet again, so far below the speed of thought. You have at last seen the digital world as it truly is, as the structures of the mind that have made you human, a human, are only just beneath the surface. The next thing you see is this: a map. It is being built up in real time from collected images as you move across it, the world surrounding you rendered as a mosaic of dataI like that, a “mosaic of data”

, massaged for your better view, your better understanding, even your better appreciation. It is the supreme task of technology.

Question: How does one navigate the landscape of knowledge?

You move your fingers, tracing quicksilver circuits on the interface, whisking through your online bookmarks, your Google queries, plucked from the ether of the search. Your fingers move like light, like light through a prism, through the invisible paper language of the internet, opening the screen to another dimension, a time and place beyond known.

Question: How does one navigate the landscape of knowledge?

The library’s shelves are long walled and silent, unhealthily compact in the center, expanding in all directions outwards, garish paintings and reflective surfaces, rounded edges, meeting at impossible angles. Someone has disturbed you as you look for a book you know must be there.“I’m sorry. I’m looking for a book…” As you leave the bright blue air in the foyer and descend into the dimness of the library’s basement, the lights flicker on, humming to life like some great beast waking from its dreams, yawning and stretching. “A book? Well, that was easy,” you mutter to yourself. And the building groans and folds around you. As you climb the shelf, the thing beneath your feet hums, as if calling out to you somehow, as if it is alive. Its wires curl within it, its pages shake from side to side. The entire library vibrates below you. You reach the shelf and you pull out volume after volume of the library’s collection.

As you put the books back on the shelf the library moans again. But this time its damp wood boards crack, its concrete base slumps in on itself, as the whole structure collapses in on itself in some vain attempt to prove its form, its stability. And you are swallowed up into the shelves as they fall down, down, down, the knowledge tearing out from within them—files cough like hacks and statistics cough, gossip cough and your mind coughs and coughs and coughs.

And as you are lost in the greatest library, you are lost in all the libraries, even those that lie beyond the horizon, even those with their covers stitched shut. And you are pulled apart, ripped to shreds, bits and bytes, bits and bytes, bits and bytes.

I’m sorry.

What do you see first when starting up your computer?

As you turn on your computer you notice the light on the screen flicker, colors moving like a camera flash. The calendar, the e-mail, the news. The world is always changing, always moving, and it is always here, always now. And as you turn to the task bar and the shell scoots aside, you see everything that has happened. Everything that has been. And all the things that are.

What are you presented with starting up an empty OS?

Are you the deepest thirst of the mind? The bird’s-eye view of the clouds at night. The brilliant sky.

Are you the beginning of the universe? The rigidity of creation.

Are you the layer of your skin? The hardness of stone. The resistance of your own thought.

Are you the end of your own experience? The stillness of soul. The weight of yourself.

Are you the same as the user? The eyeglasses placed across the face of a man who never seemed to see.

Are you an unknowable answer? The interpretation of meaning.

What is a Window?Imagine if restarting / setting up your computer was a deep philosophical journey?

How do you “pull” in content or software modules into your workspace?

You reach for the software. A slow, slithering trace of your finger across the surface of the computer: playing, clicking, triple-clicking. Click click click all the way across the screen, from side to side, dragging everything around, putting it all on top of each other, and they are all laughing as it happens, the devil pushing you. You are having a party. The fabric of layers of everything inside this screen — Excel, Skype, Twitter, Paint — is pulled at, warping, twisting all about the place, bubbling up, bursting to the surface, glooping down again, light-heavy, air-tarry, flying across the screen like angry butterflies, and then spilling onto the floor. Whoops! Whoops! Whoops! File gone and now you can’t fill in this fucking sheet. You are utterly incompetent. Unceremoniously ejected from the screen. Shit.