conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 03.05.2023
SASHA STILES: THE NEVER-ENDING CYCLE OF TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS
AI AND POETRY ON THE BLOCKCHAIN
The idea of writing a poem is, for many, quintessentially human and deeply expressive, and it stands in stark contrast to sterile and emotionless technology. Sasha Stiles, however, has always seen these two halves as a whole and finds the blockchain to be the perfect home for her writing. The Kalmyk American poet uses technology as a lens through which to understand the importance of poetry to humans and explores the technological side of lyrical writing—how poetic language has always been a data storage system.
In conversation with Anika Meier, Sasha Stiles discusses the possibilities of poetry on the blockchain and the role AI plays.
AM: In Prague last year, you gave me a cap that says, Poetry is the Original Blockchain. So far, no one has asked me why I wear the cap. If someone asked me, what do you recommend as a good answer?
ST: To many, it’s strange to find a "serious" literary poet writing and publishing on the blockchain. There are not many of us here. When I started working with robots and writing about topics like neural implants and artificial wombs and using GPT-2, people asked me, "Why are you so interested in technology? Poetry and technology don’t really go together. You should write science fiction." Actually, poetry is a technology—it’s a technology humans invented to store and share important information. Before we had written language, we figured out how to use devices like rhythm, rhyme, and meter to organize our thoughts and memories in ways that we could remember and repeat. Some of the most ancient traces of human imagination are fragments of poetry that have endured for millennia because poetic language is a really good data storage system, and the oral tradition enabled epics to survive long enough to be written down and recorded.
I sense a deep kinship between blockchain as a database and poetry as a ledger, the impulse toward non-fungibility embedded in code and metadata, and what Sarah Ruhl has described as the "yes of the poet’s immortality."
AM: I studied German literature in Heidelberg and always enjoyed the classes about poetry the most. What we heard first was: "Poetry doesn’t sell; it’s not for the market." NFTs seemed to have changed that. But let’s go back to the beginning: What was the first poetry book or poem you read?
ST: I’ll be honest: the attention that some poets and writers in the Web3 space are getting right now does not necessarily equate to sales. I’m here because I believe that blockchain is conceptually and materially an ideal home for my practice and because I’m able to do things here that I haven’t been able to do, for logistical or attitudinal reasons, in the traditional literary community. I’m also here pushing for and participating in publishing innovation and technical and financial support for writers because I believe that blockchain is a profound evolution in storytelling and creativity on par with the Gutenberg printing press, for example. For all the attention that crypto art gets, the global book publishing industry is twice the size of the global art market. It feels like collectors, VCs, and journalists are starting to pay attention, and it does seem that the dialogue around poetry and NFTs is beginning to shift popular perceptions of poems—what they look like or sound like, why we need them, where we can find them, how we value them—and imbue them with greater cultural currency.
The reason I’m so passionate about all of this is that I am, above all else, a writer. I grew up in a house filled with books and music; my parents kept many of the books they loved when they were students, and when I was a kid, I discovered my father’s battered, annotated copies of Ted Hughes’ CROW and T.S. Eliot’s FOUR QUARTETS. Those two texts not only introduced me to poetry but sunk into my soul and continue to influence nearly everything I write. I feel T.S. Eliot in my bones; he is perhaps the poet I most admire.
AM: When did you know you would like to become a poet?
ST: I’ve always known I was a writer, truly. Language is where I do my thinking and feeling; I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t scribbling down ideas or copying down lines in books that spoke to me. Every single one of my jobs over the years, from journalism to advertising to creative strategy, has involved writing. It’s not just something I like to do; it’s something I can’t not do. When I was in high school, I met Allen Ginsberg and shared some of my work with him. I still remember how he read my poems, kissed me on the cheek, and told me I had a way with words. That was a terrific moment of affirmation. But there’s a big difference between being a good, proficient writer and having something to say. For a lot of my earlier writing life, I was emulating the poets I admired and writing a lot of poems that sounded like what I thought poetry should be. When I was in college and started writing and thinking specifically about technology, my relationship to my digital devices, and what it means to be human in an increasingly machine-dominated world, that’s when I started to find my voice and feel that I had something to contribute as a poet.
AM: I have your book, TECHNELEGY, at home and I collect your NFTs. For me, these two mediums don’t feel that different when it comes to engaging with your work. How does it feel for you as the poet?
ST: Thank you for that! I have always been very multidisciplinary and transmedial in my approach to writing. My work spans from digital video poems to physical poetry cubes you can walk into and sit inside to site-specific installations coded in fruits and vegetables in my backyard. For me, TECHNELEGY is a sort of literary ecosystem—not just a book or a collection of NFTs, but an exploration of the complex themes of transhumanism and posthumanism through the lens of poetry and the multiplicity of tools and experiences we have at our fingertips.
AM: Would you call TECHNELEGY your co-author?
ST: More than a co-author, I consider TECHNELEGY my AI alter ego—my human brain, plugged into the internet and our collective consciousness, augmented with nearly all of humanity’s written record. It’s not just a human working with a machine; it’s a third creature empowered by the synergy between our respective imaginations and intelligences.
AM: How did you and TECHNELEGY start writing together? How did you train the AI?
ST: TECHNELEGY is an evolving suite of customized text generators and natural language processing tools powered by machine learning, fine-tuned based on my own poetry, research, and inspirations. I began learning about NLP and AI-driven predictive text years ago and worked up the courage to begin using it myself in 2018. I don’t come from a coding or computer science background; I’m very much a student of literature and language in the traditional sense, and I didn’t see anyone else like me experimenting in this area, so it was a little intimidating at first. I began using off-the-shelf, no-code interfaces like Talk to Transformer, but once I learned I could customize text generators by training them on curated data sets, TECHNELEGY began to take shape as a bespoke version of the publicly available tools. There are a lot of resonances between writing and coding, between organizing materials for an essay or book and curating training data.
AM: “poetry = work of art”, it says on the website of theVERSEverse, the poetry NFT gallery you founded with Ana Maria Caballero and Kalen Iwamoto. What does this statement mean for you?
ST: I’ve long gravitated towards language art and artists (Jenny Holzer, Bruce Nauman, Glenn Ligon, Cy Twombly) and have a long history of turning my own poems into artworks, as collages, little sculptural books, concrete assemblages, or even performance art, as with my ongoing poetry workshop with the android BINA48. It was always strange to me that, as much as I loved poetry, I often saw artists "appropriating" poems to use in their art but rarely saw writers present their own work on its own terms in galleries or museums. And of course, poems and art have a very long intertwined relationship, but it’s often the fact that they sit side by side rather than as one and the same thing. As someone who creates works that are simultaneously words and images, the distinction between "text-based art" and "visual poetry" is puzzling and interesting to me, which is why I’ve considered the phrase "Ars Poetica" in many of my pieces and projects over the years. Ana Maria Caballero’s mantra, "Poem = work of art," embodies the feeling all three of us share that poets are language artists.
AM: What is a good poem for you?
ST: Poetry is, of course, incredibly subjective. One of the reasons I’ve been engaged in more conceptual and experimental schools of poetry is because I find a lot of the "popular" poetry scene formulaic, skewing toward a narrow idea of what good poetry is or a rigid notion of what poets should be writing about. A lot of the most-liked poetry on Instagram and in mainstream culture feels, to me, more like diary entries or affirmations than what I personally write and enjoy reading. And a lot of the free verse poetry that is applauded as brave or bold strikes me personally as manipulative and ego-driven, exploiting or perverting the idea that poetry has to be about raw emotion or deep, dark confession. I find myself drawn more to cerebral texts and formally rigorous approaches that use the parameters of poetic language to evoke surprisingly emotional, beautiful, and haunting results. This is why, I think, writing with AI has come so naturally to me.
AM: Is there a difference between a good poem on the blockchain and in a book?
SS: With TECHNELEGY, I tend to think of the printed poem as a kind of libretto or maybe a lightweight piece of code that can be run and deployed in various environments and circumstances to achieve different things. The same poem could be the basis for a digital billboard installation, a VR filter, a long-form generative piece, or an immersive performance. It really depends on how it’s transliterated, adapted, or expanded, or how a tool, device, or environment inspires an interpretation. In my experience, a core text is the seed of nearly infinite readings and performances on and off the blockchain, just as a single poem can be read in millions of different ways by millions of individual readers who bring their own backgrounds, memories, and beliefs to it. Every poem is a kind of generative algorithm, and every reader is a kind of unique transaction hash.
At the same time, while it’s incredibly interesting to see the variety of ways in which a poem can be translated as an NFT, the reverse doesn’t always hold; for example, a simple series of words expressed via motion graphics and through varying colours and effects may not pack the same intended punch as static black ink on a white page. Moreover, I’m deeply fascinated by the ways in which conceiving a poem specifically as a digitally native piece, writing it specifically as an NFT, using an algorithmic platform or digital device as the medium, or otherwise, shapes the outcome. This is why, while many writers collaborate with graphic designers, artists, or coders to interpret their words, I’m rather insistent on being both the poet and the artist of my own works. To me, the medium and the poem are inseparable. When I’m "writing" a poem in digital form, whether through generative code or as a video poem or a visual piece, the poem is coming to life not just through the letters and words but through the colours, animations, programs, and devices I’m using. More and more, the creation of an NFT—the concept of why a poem belongs on the blockchain instead of in a printed book—is part of my writing process, not an afterthought or merely an extension. I think this is important because of the potential for NFTs to merge the ancient, immersive tradition of oral poetry with novel tools that can allow us to think and communicate in unprecedented ways—ways we can’t on paper. Why constrain myself to adapting conventional poems to innovative mediums when I can use those innovative mediums to inspire and manifest types of poetry I have never been able to imagine or articulate until now?
AM: Who are some of your influences as a poet and an artist? Do you yourself make a difference here? I ask that question because it says on your website: Metapoet, literary artist, AI researcher.
ST: I don’t distinguish, and I would add to that list, poets, artists, scientists, and engineers, because some of my greatest inspirations are researchers, explorers, inventors, and futurists, like Carl Sagan, Nick Bostrom, Alan Lightman, Martine Rothblatt, Neri Oxman, and Ray Kurweil. One of my favorite contemporary poets is Tracy K. Smith, in part because of the kinship I feel to her poems about her father, who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope; her book LIFE ON MARS resonates so much with my own formative experiences tagging along with my parents when they were working on the documentary COSMOS, going to places like JPL and The Planetary Society. To observe the world and the farthest reaches of the universe and attempt to articulate theories and formulas to help make sense of the unfathomable—that is pure poetry.
I have incredible admiration for the research-based artist Stephanie Dinkins, whose work with AI led me to BINA48, and for the programmer and author Ellen Ullman, whose writings helped me begin to navigate my own technophilia (and its opposite). And I admire historical figures like Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley, who followed their scientific and technological obsessions despite stereotypes of what women should think and write about.
When it comes specifically to language and storytelling, I’m deeply influenced by writers such as Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, who hacked systems of grammar and literary propriety to crack open new ways of reading and understanding, as well as T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman, who seemed to somehow intuit and tap into the kind of collective consciousness that we’re now harnessing via AI. "Tradition and Individual Talent" is a touchstone for me in my musings on AI. And it probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I revere Cy Twombly and Jenny Holzer.
AM: When it comes to AI, the discussions are heated, especially after the progress that ChatGPT-4 made. Researchers are worried about the future of humanity. What are your thoughts on the future of AI and AGI and their rapid development?
ST: The entire history of humanity has been shaped by our advancing technologies, from the invention of hand tools and the use of fire to cook with to the advent of language and so on and so forth. Humanity as we know it now is the product of technology. As daunting as it is to think of all the ways that humanity will change as a result of AI’s development, it seems not only inevitable but inexorably human to evolve in these ways. In my book TECHNELEGY, I quote H.G. Wells: "It is possible to believe that all that the human mind has accomplished is but the dream before the awakening." These aren’t new anxieties, though they are accelerating in astonishing ways.
AM: How will AI impact our culture and humanity?
ST: As a writer working with natural language processing, the impact of AI on language, communication, and consciousness is so profound and seismic that I quite honestly have trouble grappling with all that is to come, even though I’ve made it my job to peer into the future. It feels on par with the invention of linear perspective in the 1400s, or maybe even the invention of language long before that. We will never see things the same way again. We’re going to develop a kind of vision that we can’t even understand or conceive of yet, and it’s going to change many of the fundamental aspects of what it means to be human here and now. The sheer vastness and complexity of intelligent systems and how they learn and function is opening up new portals of self-understanding for humanity itself—the recognition that human intelligence sits on a spectrum of myriad intelligences and that the human individual is one of billions of networked nodes. That’s what I mean by posthumanity: the decentralization of human myopia, an imminent and necessary humility, an epiphany that the only way out of the troubles we’ve created is collaboration, not just with other human beings but with other species and other ways of thinking, inventing, and problem-solving.
AM: Are there any books you can recommend about this topic? And looking at all the books you’ve read about AI and its future, have the concerns changed about the challenges society might face?
SS: I hope that many artists beginning to use AI delve deeper into books and research on how and why AI works the way it does and what its arrival portends for humanity. Books like "Ways of Being" by James Bridle; "Novacene" by James Lovelock; "Artificial Unintelligence" by Meredith Broussard; "Algorithms of Oppression" by Safiya Umoja Noble; "Atlas of AI" by Kate Crawford; and the work of Ray Kurweil and Nick Bostrom I also love the novelist Jeanette Winterson’s "12 Bytes" and Virginia Heffernan’s "Magic and Loss", both on the arts and technology more broadly. Anyone with an interest in AI literature, specifically, must read K. Allado-McDowell’s "Pharmako AI", Mark Amerika’s "My Life as an Artificial Creative Intelligence", and Ross Goodwin’s "1 the Road", as well as the work of David J. Johnston.
AM: How do you explain what you do to people who are not familiar with blockchain and AI?
ST: I say that I’m a poet using both text and technology to probe what it means to be human in a nearly posthuman era. I’m carrying a torch for the generations of writers who invented new ways of using language to embody and express the never-ending cycle of technological progress and who have always intuited at a gut level how the technologies that shape our lives are also shaping consciousness and self-awareness. And that I’m doing what poets have always done: grappling with the big questions (birth, death, love, faith, etc.) as they’re affected by our inventions, using language as a way to give voice to inchoate feelings of overwhelm and anxiety, and encoding my memories, beliefs, and truths in a way that I hope will last for a long, long time.
AM: How do you explain the sudden strong interest in poetry on the blockchain? Especially considering the fact that poetry is usually not, as they told us in university, popular on the market.
ST: We live in a time of so much noise, activity, commotion, information, and questionable value, and I think poetry, with its concision and stillness or slowness, insists on a kind of meaningful synthesis we crave deeply. Poems are a way of forging an incredibly intimate connection with another mind, another experience—they're empathy machines, in a way—and especially coming out of the past few years, that feels like an implicit utility we need now more than ever.
And also, poets and coders, or maybe technologists more broadly, have a deep, deep kinship, as people like your friend, the artist and science-fiction writer Herbert W. Franke, knew: "Poetry is code, code is poetry.” When I see the generative art scene exploding, I’m struck by how the impulse toward recursion and repetition is so profoundly poetic—that you can run the same program over and over and over again and discover something new each time. Code is moving beyond the arena of computer science and manifesting as a powerful kind of universal, aesthetic language.
AM: What is your answer to critics who might say that the strong interest in poetry on the blockchain is only temporary?
ST: It’s interesting because people love to say that poetry is dead, irrelevant, or doesn’t sell, but poetry is invariably what we reach for at our highest and lowest moments. It’s what saves us when nothing else can. It’s how we utter the otherwise inexpressible. We recite poems at weddings and funerals, and we invite poets to bring the nation together at pivotal moments like presidential inaugurations. We’re still reading, reciting, and learning from verses written by ancient humans who lived in times we can scarcely comprehend. Deep into the future, our interstellar, posthuman descendants are going to be deciphering and interpreting verses written by us, the ancient earthlings, to discover or remember what it was like to live through the moment when the internet and AI began to transform consciousness. Our most precious poems have existed and endured for thousands of years, through profound changes to systems of language and understanding. Blockchains may come and go, but poetry will never become obsolete.