The internet is kind of like a giant game of ping-pong where there’s always somebody at the other end of the table ready to rally the ball back—whether you like it or not. A thought served out is returned with a friendly lob, the start of a conversation. A joke is returned with sidespin, the same joke but a little bit funnier. An opinion meant for the person across the table is returned with pummeling aggression from ten tables over, soon a barrage from all sides. Thwacks, bounces, ricochets. They echo and redouble.
What kind of space is this for language, for poetry, for art? We’re now almost thirty years deep into the experiment of the World Wide Web, and we still don’t really know. This featured series takes stock of the internet’s ping-ponging echoes by asking how we make art and tell stories about the internet, with the internet, and around the internet.
In “Flash Flood: Computer Randomness & Poetry,” Serena Solin explores another early web curiosity, www.random.org, still one of the most popular randomness generators on the internet. The website is popular, in part, because it generates true randomness, something that both human beings and computers are really bad at simulating, as Solin explains. A staticky $10 radio turns out to be much better and plays a foundational role in www.random.org’s origin story. Also steering us through vignettes of thunderstorms, online gambling, and people encountered by chance, Solin reveals how randomness bursts into life and how harnessing it, through digital tools, can enliven poetry.
— Melanie Walsh
Flash Flood: Computer Randomness & Poetry
By Serena Solin
random.org is among the most popular random generator services on the internet. It’s a one-stop-shop for anything you need randomized: lists, dates, lottery numbers, jazz scales, integer sequences, colors. random.org has been used for all sorts of interesting scientific and creative projects, including medical (especially viral) studies, white noise generation, cybersecurity, and (my personal favorite) revitalizing your love life: “My wife and I hit a lull in our sex life. The solution? We created an ‘Intimacy List.’ Basically a list of 8 intimate things we could do on any given night, running the gamut from ‘cuddle up’ to ‘you know what!’ Then every night we go to random.org and pick an integer from 1 to 8. It’s worked like a charm.”
I first discovered random.org in 2007, at the height of my Sims career, when I realized that I had inadvertently given several of my Sim babies the same name. I wanted my Sims to have “family names,” passed down generation to generation, but I didn’t always want the first kid to be named Mortimer. I was playing through generations at such speed it was hard to remember which names I had used. I fed my list of names to random.org’s list randomizer, and soon my cities were populated by Sims whose names repeated with lifelike frequency. Since then I have used the random.org for myriad purposes: pairing students for assignments, to-do lists, coin flips, and, most importantly, poetry.
The project that became random.org started in the summer of 1997, when Mads Haar, then a master’s student in computer science at the University of Copenhagen (now a lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin) and three friends decided to create a truly random number generator based on atmospheric noise. Atmospheric noise is, according to the first line of its Wikipedia page, “radio noise caused by natural atmospheric processes, primarily lightning discharges in thunderstorms.” What sounds like static to the human ear is actually electromagnetic impulses pinging at random frequencies, which a computer can record. All you need to pick up atmospheric noise is a radio receiver, which Haahr and his buddies purchased for $10 from Radio Shack.
It is easy to have a computer achieve pseudorandomness. For example, you could roll a die a hundred or a thousand times, record the results (which would be random), and feed them to a computer. But once the computer reaches the end of the list of rolls, it will simply start again at the beginning. A data set that might appear random to the human eye could be predictable to a computer, especially if it has a large amount of data to learn from. To teach a computer to generate true randomness, you have to hook it up to a natural phenomenon, like atmospheric noise, that is ongoing in real time.
The office where I currently work is on the thirty-eighth floor of a skyscraper. When the atmosphere is charged, lightning strikes close and bright all around us. It is a rarity. New York isn’t prone to sudden storms the way, say, St. Louis is. There, at least at first, it seemed like the storms occurred with no warning. I would be out getting groceries or getting stoned on the couch and I would hear thunder, louder and more abrupt than the gentle rumbling I knew on the East Coast. Then rain like marbles being poured on a windshield. Then lightning, an explosion. Sheeting torrents. The cat unable to look away, pacing the windowsill.
I could not predict the duration between lightning and thunder, therefore I could not pinpoint where the thunderstorm was, or the direction in which it was moving. I did not know if the sky would crack, if a rift would open in the grey, or if a distant patch of horizon would be briefly, calmly, illuminated. In the beginning I would catch the first strike only out of the corner of my eye. Later I thought I could sense the staticky tightness that preceded the storms. Emily said she could feel it in her knee.
Which is all to say: there is no way to prove that atmospheric noise—or any other natural phenomena, for that matter—is actually random. Life could be as pseudorandom as a premade list of die rolls, for all we know. We may live in a deterministic universe where, if we were smarter, we would understand and be able to predict radioactive decay, or the weather. But until we have better instruments, all we have is guesswork and feeling, like knowing you should bet it all on red.
The random generator that Haahr and friends built was originally conceived for the purpose of online gambling. If you are going to gamble, you need a true shuffle, otherwise you or someone else or the house can cheat. But in 1997 online gambling had yet to catch on. Within a few years, Haahr’s partners moved on. They started other companies and left Haahr to “the only part of the project that survives,” that is, the website, random.org.
By the mid-2000s, online gambling was all the rage. To many it must have seemed cleaner—less smoky?—than the real life alternative. I remember a childhood friend’s father who had a difficult relationship with online poker. He seemed in control of it; he could keep his promise to quit when he said he would. He made money. Still, the hours. This was back when it was common to have a communal screen in a living room or kitchen, when digital interactions were more public within a household. The rendering of the game was flat and sparse and not entertaining to me, the suits of the cards so pixelated they were difficult to read.
Gambling is neither art, nor pleasure, nor work, though it has elements of all three. It is some other thing, which can capture a brain wholesale. You and the computer and the other players know the rules of the game, and then there is chaos, allowed into the game in a controlled way. You can feel the physical effect, the fear and anticipation of the next card rooting you to your chair. Just this taste of randomness is tremulous.
The easiest way to demonstrate how bad the human brain is at behaving randomly is to try it yourself. This web page, created by a psychology professor, prompts you to create what you think is a random sequence of 100 coin flips by typing “H” for heads and “T” for tails. Even knowing that I should try to include more tails (since the natural impulse is heads), and that I shouldn’t alternate too cleanly between heads and tails, I struggled to create a statistically random sequence of coin flips. Most people do.
I was not surprised to learn that I am bad at making randomness, that most people are, because I’ve tried to do it before. A game I played with my poetry students—a game I play by myself all the time—is to come up with two random images, put one at the beginning of the poem and one at the end, and then write until the images connect. If you choose images like “tarnished coffee thermos” and “dog-eared Spanish textbook,” you won’t have to go far. More fruitful might be the distance between, say, “a hummingbird” and “a hamper of laundry” or “an auburn wig” and “an outdoor symphony.” The point of the exercise is that it is impossible not to eventually find your way to the final image, even if you have to make some homophonic leaps. The mind will always make connections.
If randomness is external to human thought, even a little unnatural, what role can it play when isolated and made useful by tools like random.org? How can randomness be meaningfully introduced to poetry, and the arts in general? The Oulipo, the Dadaists, the Russian Futurists, the Surrealists, and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets (and their hypertextual descendants) all found exciting answers to this question. Choose Your Own Adventure books, poems that can be read in any order, and exquisite corpses are other appealing forays.
These examples are all fairly niche, not on your standard high school or undergraduate syllabus. Typically there is not much room in poetry for unintentionality. Meter, the line break, and the stanza conspire against it. Furthermore, any poem determined entirely by randomness requires more patience from the reader than a poet can reasonably expect. Spending time with (or money on) a book or work of art that feels meaningless can be upsetting, a betrayal of trust.
However, I would argue that a poem with no chaos is less lively to engage with than a poem that has been run through a word scrambler. The human tendency to associate and interpret disjunctive elements is what makes poetry feel so paradoxically open and inevitable. By experimenting with randomness, we can understand how orderly our minds, our lives, and our poetry are. By purposefully incorporating randomness into our poetry, we can attempt to circumnavigate these structures. In the words of Brenda Hillman, we can expand our “awareness of how particular and odd everything is, especially in moments of compressed thought captured in time.” In a world ruled by timecards, semesters, circadian rhythms, and algorithmic behavioral prediction, the little agents of chaos like random.org are rare and valuable. Why the red wheelbarrow? In a sense, because that’s just what he saw.
I’ll close with a scene of another card game, this one played two summers ago at the soap store I used to work in. A day of packaging soap was soothing origami (as long as Melissa didn’t make it a competition, which she would always win). I found giving tours of the back of the shop less relaxing. It was my responsibility to provide visitors, usually tourists, with a compelling narrative of the store’s founding and operation, followed by the sensual satisfactions of fat and lye stirred with scents brilliant in their resonances. Almond essence: dangerous, prickly, near-cyanide. Rose: difficult to procure ethically, and the cheap stuff depressingly evident. Birch: somehow at once sweet as root beer and sharp as evergreen. Rare was the person who came into the store and didn’t buy something.
It was slow one hot late-afternoon. My cards were meaningless to me but comprehensible to Renee, working in the shop after retiring from a long career of witness in St. Louis children’s services. Of course, it wasn’t the work that eventually got to her, but the bureaucracy.
Renee / Numerology
when golden tomatoes presented
as nude peaches, my hand
was a loose diamond formation
containing (she said)
an unusually high number of faces
The elements that constitute this poem are casually, humanly random: a person encountered by chance, a game we decided to play on a certain day of a certain season, the cards I drew, the way Renee’s interpretation spoke to me. I thought I could feel order behind all of it, just out of reach. I saw chaos narrativized into fate. I was crossing the parking lot later that day, on my way home, when suddenly the sky darkened and it began to pour.
Serena Solin is a writer from New Jersey. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Fence, tammy, Foundry, The Atlas Review, The Adroit Journal, Ghost City Press, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere.
Melanie Walsh is a PhD candidate in English at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is completing a dissertation about the recirculation of postwar literary texts on the internet. Beginning in August 2019, she will be a postdoctoral associate in Information Science at Cornell University.