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Getting to know the digital hive mind - Chris Rodley



Over the past few weeks, artist Andrew Burrell and I have been busy finishing our networked art and e-literature collaboration for The Portals program, which will be opening at The Concourse in Chatswood on 8 June.

Entitled Enquire Within Upon Everybody, it’s a real-time question and answer session which gives audiences the chance to query the Internet collective consciousness on any subject and receive real-time, generative responses. To make it work from a technical point of view, we’ve needed to define a series of complex (and sometimes simple) algorithms that query online data streams in order to return relevant answers without any intervention from us.

Currently we’re focused on testing the app that drives the artwork by priming it with questions (if you tweet a question now with the hashtag #enquiresydney it will be added to the list). We’ve been finding that the answers given by the digital hive mind offer some glimpses into its emergent personality.

One of the very first questions we began with was simply “How are you feeling today?” We were struck by the downbeat (sometimes acheronian) tone of many of the responses:

… Today I am feeling tired and delicate

… Today I am feeling bruised in soul

… Today I am feeling really bad

… Today I am feeling alone.

The digital hive mind can be mercurial, though, and will perk up if you ask it the right question. We asked it “Am I beautiful?” and we got back:

… You are as beautiful as Cinderella

… You are as beautiful as truth

… You are as beautiful as your thoughts

… You are as beautiful as you were yesterday.

Notice the sting in the tail of that last response. A sardonic sense of humour is one of the most salient characteristics of the digital hive mind. Here’s what happened when we tried it out with that Platonic ideal of jokes, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”:

… To get to the other site

… To get to the other side -- er, no -- to go shopping -- no, not that either -- damn it.

… To get to the other side and achieve its life goal, what are you doing to achieve yours?

… To get to the other *sigh*.

We’ve also been putting the finishing touches on the interface for the artwork, which outwardly takes the form of an arcade video game from the 1980s. The 8-bit style is particularly suited to visualising the lo-fi data that we’re querying in this work: tweets. They’re in plain text, with no images or sound, and are a maximum of only 560 8-bit bytes (Twitter was built on the 20-year-old technology of SMS).

Why not come along to the launch of The Portals on Saturday 8 June and ask a question yourself? You’ll get the chance to see Enquire Within and the other four works on the program, and meet some of the artists involved. It starts at 3pm. For more information, visit The Portals Facebook page at

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