Happy Sad Computer

Generative art is a murky area. Ranging from conceptually fascinating and interesting work to little more than wallpaper, its satisfaction level is not always guaranteed. Kind of like the Oulipo movement, in which mathematical constraints were applied to text, or multiple choice and random elements were incorporated into the text’s production. This often sounds better in terms of the concepts discussed rather than necessarily the texts produced.

A piece which I stumbled upon recently stuck me as pretty interesting, until I really began thinking about what was happening. It’s focus is not on textual output (in the respect of producing a text) and yet, ironically, this is what makes it such an interesting application.

Happy Sad Computer – an application which I’m afraid is for Mac OS X only – needs an internet connection. It scans through internet pages, following links and scanning those pages, then following those links, etc. It looks at the language in these pages and becomes increasingly happy or sad depending on the language in the pages. If it cannot find a link (presumably) the application begins again from a random list of web sites it knows.

Screenshot from Happy Sad Computer. Pressing the space bar toggles between the visibility of the URLs being visited

Disconcertingly, the face often ends up sobbing buckets of electrotears rather than bearing a cybergrin. This is perhaps unsuprising since it appears to begin its scan on CNN, and as everyone knows, good news is no news.

I guess what interests me most about this piece is how it treats linguistic components objectively, and thus invites the consideration that the system of language is riddled with ironies, double-meanings, metaphor, all compunded by sound byte jargon. I imagine, for example, the expression “friendly fire” having an interesting impact on the face’s mood.

Also interesting is the paths which the application ends up pursuing, as links from one page to another take the scanning process seemingly to the other end of the cyberspectrum, highlighting the fact that “each text contained in an electronic network is in active dialogue with the others” (quote, Brian Kim Stefans, Fashionable Noise: On Digital Poetics p.129)

Anyway, it’s an interesting and free way to pass the time for 5 minutes. I think, in light of the above, that such investigations are very closely linked to the kinds of inquiry which make hypertext theory and the writing which can come out of it fascinating and unique. Happy Sad Computer deals with language in a way which is reflective of the objectified scans of a robot, and applied to the subjective realm of emotion, and as such, it functions as an interesting engagement with language at the multiple tiers of interpretation which occur in a networked process of electronic parsing and reader (human) inference.

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