Erica Haugtvedt is Assistant Professor of English in the Humanities department and regularly teaches both HUM 200 (Connections: Humanities and Technology) and HUM 375 (Computers in Society) as part of the Science, Technology, and Society degree program.
What’s your area of expertise? What do you primarily research and/or teach? And what drew you to this field?
I study the history of fandom. I study the nineteenth-century British novel and its spin-offs as evidence of how people reacted to and thought about narratives and characters. I like to think about how print newspapers, magazines, books, and theatre are all interrelated. Another way of saying what I specialize in is to say that I study the history of transmedia storytelling (for more about what transmedia storytelling means, see Henry Jenkins’ writing here).
I think there were a lot of things that drew me to these topics, but the main memory I’ll relate it back to is being a fan of Harry Potter in high school. Harry Potter books had been coming out since I was in late elementary school, but I hadn’t read them because I thought they were too popular and overrated. Then, during my freshmen year of high school, my best friend convinced me to read Harry Potter around when the fourth book came out. She said that I would love them, and she was totally right. There was a long publication gap between the fourth book and the fifth book (three years), so during that time my best friend and I became part of the Harry Potter fandom online as we waited for more from Rowling. This was a transformative experience for me because fandom was a unique culture that had a sophisticated scholarly apparatus for detailing facts from the books and for interpreting them. You can say a lot about fandom that is derisive, but that mode of reading and looking for more engagement—that really made a lasting impression on me. I’m not active in fandom anymore, sadly, but I will always be ready to defend fans and fandom.
To end National Poetry Month and my exploration of the relationships between poetry and science, I want to turn to the process of writing poetry rather than poetry that addresses scientific ideas. More specifically, who – or what – writes poetry? Can an algorithm write poetry? Poetry is usually considered a particularly human thing. It’s an art form that requires linguistic ability, and it is associated with subjective experience, emotion, and interiority. Algorithms have access to language, but they lack individual identity, experiences, and emotions. Algorithms can be programmed to write poetry, so the question is really: does that count as poetry?
Bot or Not (sadly now defunct) takes up this topic by exploring whether we can actually tell the difference between poetry written by a human and poetry written by a bot. Check out some samples and see how you do. Here’s one example to consider:
Red flags the reason for pretty flags. And ribbons. Ribbons of flags And wearing material Reason for wearing material. Give pleasure. Can you give me the regions. The regions and the land. The regions and wheels. All wheels are perfect. Enthusiasm.
Does this seem like the work of a human poet? If you’re looking for expressions of emotion and interiority – as I primed you to do in the introduction – you might suspect this is the work of the bot. It’s not, though. It was written by Gertrude Stein, who was famous for challenging expectations of language use anyway. Kind of a tricky one. Ultimately, though, Oscar Schwartz, one of the creators of Bot or Not, said that 65% of their human readers failed the test for some of the poems in their database, indicating that it’s not just about Gertrude Stein being Gertrude Stein. There’s some real confusion about what’s human about poetry – and about humans themselves.
I recently binged the Netflix show Cobra Kai, which brings the characters from the 1984 film Karate Kid into the present. My favorite character in the show is not the original hero Danny Larusso (Ralph Macchio), but the down-and-out and hopelessly politically incorrect Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), owner of the revitalized Cobra Kai dojo.
Lawrence is particularly fun to watch as he struggles to learn how to use computers and the internet – from turning on a computer and accessing wi-fi to navigating social media and all the unspoken rules of internet communication. If you’ve watched Cobra Kai on Netflix or YouTube (where it originally started), you’re already better versed in the internet than Johnny, who’d likely guess “Netflix” was a movie about basketball.