The New York Review of Bots

Est. 2013

The End of Horsebooks Is Hardly the End of Anything

Let’s talk about what happened today! A bot, long suspected not to be a bot, ceased bot-operations and dramatically unbotted itself in one of humanity’s most genteel, least mechanical forums. Concurrently, its creators appeared in a lower-Manhattan gallery to {sound of the channel changing}.

Look, their message was clear: ART. They did an art, and would seemingly like to keep doing arts. They arted so hard that Susan Orlean is writing a story about them for the physical New Yorker, a feat of digital-to-analog enshrinement most bots only dream of, to the extent they have been programmed to dream.

(If I understood tumblr footnotes better I’d go on a digression here about how Susan Orlean, who has seen herself portrayed in one of our more enjoyable self-referencing films, is just the right tautological lens for the more tail-consuming aspects of this story. Better yet, future-pretend I’ll write a whole thing about it the day her article comes out.)

Understandably, today’s unmasking/unplugging vexed a lot of people who’d imprinted on the shared hallucination of this machine gone adorably haywire. Some (and this admittedly falls between subtweet and strawman) fixated on where its puppetmasters keep day jobs. But that’s a pretty facile dismissal of what looks to have been a sophisticated operation, and chucking this as churn-inflected marketing only boosts the odds you’ll fall for their next thing, too.

On reflection, I can’t sustainably hate anyone who spent two years scrimshawing cred from the loose fingerbones of Internet Spam Voice. This morning put me in a kind of snarky bafflement, tinged by admiration that someone committed to a bit this ridiculous for so long. I liked Dan Sinker’s gobsmacked elegy — not because it was someone else who ended their popular thing getting a taste of their own medicine, but because it marked another notch on an increasingly crowded wall of cultural experiments bending the super-weird line between person and process.

So let’s not pretend the revelation of this antibot means the Internet has stopped being history’s greatest serendipity engine. Or that bots, the little scripted dingbats, have lost their capacity for channeling that engine to often miraculous effect in social contexts, to taste. It’s probably true Horse was the most famous bot, but also probably true it wasn’t nearly the best.

In losing @horse_ebooks, readers, we have lost a pioneer. But we are left with its America.

  • 24 September 2013
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