Poetry, web 3 and data (a report)

In the last few months of the last century I sat down with two different sets of venture capitalists and tried to explain how the web would change/transform the lives of a particular ‘demographic’. I was an enthusiast, I could see the point of the web and thought I had worked out how things would change.

Thankfully they didn’t give me the money that I was asking for so I went away and built a much smaller business from scratch. I’ve thought a lot about the web in a variety of different ways over the last ten years and I have consistently underestimated what it can do. I’m not alone in this and there’s an increasing number of web innovators who will admit that they can’t see further than six or seven months into the future.

My life in poetry has been transformed beyond recognition and in ways that I have yet to fully grasp or appreciate but I do know that this is occurring on several different levels and in a number of different ways. On a purely personal level, I now have access to masses of poetry that I wouldn’t even have known about ten years ago, I have access to what others have written and thought about this poetry and have the information that enables me to negotiate some of the trickier waters of the modernist pond. I can also talk to people from around the world about this stuff which isn’t in any way possible on the Isle of Wight where I live.

The web also enabled me to gain financial security so that I no longer need to work which is very good – because of my mental illness I’m unlikely to be employed by anyone with any sense.

During the summer I took more than a passing interest in web science and attended a conference on the future of the web- the first speaker was Tim Berners-Lee followed by a variety of academics, industry executives and a couple of snake oil salesmen (better known as ‘early stage entrepeneurs’).

One thing out of the mass of speculation became clear, web 3 is likely to have a greater focus on data and the availability of useful data to a much wider audience who will be able to tailor that data to meet their own needs. I was also clear that both Google and Microsoft are throwing huge amounts of money at personalised search. One of the main non-techie thrusts of the day was about encouraging academic, government and commercial entities to be much more open with the data that they accumulate.

It has taken a while for the penny to drop but I think I am beginning to work this one through with regard to the doing of poetry.

The current explosion in data will lead to a more efficient and focused exploitation of that information. I spent some time thinking about whether or not poems could be considered as data before realising that I needed to be thinking about poetic activity as a whole as a quantifiable field. To this end in the past week I have made some poems from data that this blog produces and have posted them here. One of these has been spontaneously responded to in poetic form by the subject of the first line of data (Jonty Tiplady).

I’m not for one moment suggesting that this more focused use of data will be a good thing, in fact I’m not terribly interested in how data is used, I’m much more interested in that data as data and how it is presented and the data that we choose to overlook or ignore.

With regard to poetry the obvious data ranges from copies sold, attendance at readings, copies accessed, copies downloaded, average cost etc down to individual poets, number of collections published, individual poems published in journals and periodicals, readings given down to subject matter, poem length, forms used, line lengths, vocabulary etc. None of this will tell us whether a poem is any good but it could be collated against reviews and/or readers’ comments on the web.

The other point is that data as data is becoming increasingly important in the grander scheme of things, finnace ministers and banks across the world are tracking the amount of interest Italy pays on its bonds with a view that anything over 6.5% would be catastrophic. There are investment funds that use computers to track share prices and these are programmed to dump shares as soon as they go below a certain level and this sudden sell-off can have a massive cumulative effect on stock exchanges without any human intervention.

I think that what I’m trying to say is that this is a fundamental shift that is occurring everyday and is transforming our lives and that poetry might need to respond to that because poetry is good at knowing how representation works and can interrogate the integrity and objectivity of the data as data and throw into detailed relief the various framing mechanisms that are being used.

Like language, data is never innocent, it is always compromised whether this be the card index record that the Germans kept of their Jewish victims to the way that data collation is commissioned by supermarkets who want to encourage/trick us into buying more products.

Whilst trying to work out what to ‘do’ in response to the Saville inquiry report into Bloody Sunday I came across the idea of extracting the labels from some of the maps and sketch maps that were used so that all parties could understand better what was being discussed. I was attracted to these because some of the line breaks made some of the labels read like small poems and also described some of the darker events of the day in notably stark terms.

I don’t think that the kind of engagement that I’m thinking about is inevitably conceptual or non poetic, I’ve just received a copy of Joe Luna’s ‘Google Song’ from Crater Press which seems to be alive to these kind of issues but in a very lyrical way- “break me off a piece / of your best code try and find / a general heart of me”.

Finally, for now, there’s the juxtapositional conceit which allows me or anyone else to set off one set of data against another.The following is taken from two very recent IMF studies on rehypothecation and the shadow banking system and the other on commodity price cycles and edited extracts from soldiers in the DRC (there is a link);

Dependent variable: Cumulative output growth during the bust (Yi), relative to trend growth
CA (percent of GDP, level in t )3 0.568* 0.615+ 0.648* -0.105 -0.101<br/ (0.29) (0.42) (0.37) (0.37) (0.36)
There are different kinds of rape. Some rapes are about lust. But
some are criminal. Well all are forbidden. It is bad [ezali mabe]. You cannot be
with a woman without her consent. Even in the house. Also in the house, if your
woman does not want to, you cannot force her. But in the sense that I am talking
now, that rape is in two sorts, what do I mean? Because if it is only lust, then
why do you sometimes kill her? Also if it is about lust, you will use the organ that
you have. Why would you put a stick in her? We see that a lot. It is happening a
lot in the East, in Kalemie. That is not about lust. It is not about the physical
needs [posa ya nzoto]. That is from a need to destroy, to destroy the dignity, the
human dignity of a person […] rapes is committed at both these levels. It is also
about lust—it is like if you are hungry—it is the same with the body ⁄ sexual
needs. And if you have the possibility—you are also stronger than women, it can
happen. But it is bad [ezali mabe].

    Traditional Banks
(Intermediate short-term savings)
Loans (M2)


Ultimate Creditors
_________ "Equity"

oyoalali, oyo alali, oyo alali, oyo alali
An example in Matadi, one section [section moko] was patrolling. It was in the
night, they saw a woman and she started ‘‘ohh, don’t you have any money?’’ So,
they just decided, let’s rape her. The whole section raped her, this one raped
her, then the other one and the other one and the other one and so on [oyo
alali, oyo alali, oyo alali, oyo alali]. But the woman they raped was somebody’s
woman [mwasi ya batu]. Even if she was a whore [ndumba] she has a right, she
has her family (…) What is her right? She could have said, ok one, one of you, I
can sleep with one of you, or two. But the way that they all raped her, then she
has a right to press charges [kofunda bino]. It is bad [ezali mabe]. It is bad. It is
bad. Rape can give you many years in prison. It is forbidden for soldiers. Even in
civilian life it is forbidden (Male Sgt.)

Dependent variable: Cumulative output growth during the bust (Yi), relative to trend growth
CA (percent of GDP, level in t )3 0.568* 0.615+ 0.648* -0.105 -0.101Dependent variable: (0.29) (0.42) (0.37) (0.37) (0.36)

I'm still not sure where I might be going with this but there's certainly scope for non-poetic thought and improvisation.


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