Calendar of Events

Spring 2013

Friday, February 8, 2013
Jim Brown (English, UW-Madison)
Narrative, Database, and Algorithm in the Hospitable Network
3:30 pm Curtin 108

In early 2012, robot writers began threatening journalists’ livelihood everywhere—but perhaps it’s not fair to blame the robots. It was Kristian Hammond, Chief Technology Officer of a company called Narrative Science, who was firing shots across the bow.

Narrative Science designs computer algorithms that synthesize data into news stories. Hammond claimed that within fifteen years more than 90 percent of news would be written by computers. In the midst of a media blitz, journalists and commentators began asking whether algorithms could replace human writers. But Narrative Science’s algorithms also raise a different set of questions. Given that Hammond’s algorithms are designed to transform spreadsheets and databases into narratives, we might instead take the debate about robot writers as an opportunity to rethink the problem of information overload.

In a hospitable network that welcomes the contributions of a multitude of writers (human and otherwise), consumers are inundated with growing databases and a proliferation of narratives. As datasets grow, we spin more and more narratives to make sense of information. How are we to navigate this situation? In this talk, Jim Brown suggests that algorithmic thinking offers one way forward, since algorithms are the hinge point between the world views of database and narrative. He further suggests that rhetorical theory, which has always been algorithmic, provides key theoretical resources for engaging a growing database of narratives.

Friday, February 8
12 noon Curtin 108

In this informal workshop, Professor Brown will demonstrate the following software and answer any of your questions about it:
  • SCRATCH, which his students have used to create videogames
  • INFORM7, which his students have used to create interactive fiction
  • TAROKO GORGE, a poetry generator designed by Nick Montfort and remixed by a number of others
Jim Brown is an assistant professor of rhetoric, new media studies, and software studies in the English department of UW-Madison. He is currently at work on a book project entitled “Ethical Programs” that investigates the ethical and rhetorical underpinnings of networked software environments. Networked software relies upon the arrival of various others in order to function, but that same software must also find ways to filter, sift, and sort those others. These sorting mechanisms institute what he calls “ethical programs,” which express the deep ethical commitments of various communities.

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