Thursday, September 13, 2012

Scientific progress

Interview by Sarah-Clare Conlon.

To celebrate 100 years since mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing was born, MLF have teamed up with independent Manchester-based publisher Comma Press to launch Turing Text - a new experiment in social narrative. This micro-blogging game will apply the iconic Turing Test to the social media context and will be open for everyone to take part. Turing Text aims to create new pieces of fiction and the project will officially get underway at the Blog North Awards, on 17 October (click here for more). Here, Comma's Editorial Manager Ra Page explains a little more about the experiment and tells us about some of the other events he's looking forward to at MLF 2012.

MLF: You’re launching the Turing Text during MLF. Can you explain what this is and how people can get involved?
RP: One of the many fascinating by-products of social media is the way in which authors and aspiring writers now find themselves talking to readers (and other writers) in an incredibly regular and personal way, sharing their experience of the writing process, and every last detail of how they get through their working day. What was once, presumably, a very private process has suddenly become a completely public one. I wanted to know how, if at all, this has affected the author’s voice, and I also wanted to commission pieces of writing that reflected the growing presence of social media in their characters’ lives. 

Quite separately from this, I’ve always been interested in the Turing Test as a definition of artificial intelligence. Facebook and Twitter allow us to acquire so many friends, it’s very possible that we’ve never actually met some of them, and therefore in theory, that they’re not actually who or what they seem. (Facebook recently estimated that they have around 83 million illegitimate accounts, and ‘illegitimate’ is a broad term.)

The idea with this project was to put these two ideas together – social media and the Turing Test – and to see if any new pieces of fiction could be teased into existence through a very new route. The rules are (fairly) simple. We ask players to sign up to a specially created social media space in the weeks leading up to the festival, but to choose a pseudonym, and they can then play it one of two ways:
     (a) carry on ‘being themselves’ – making status updates, comments, likes, etc, as themselves and as they would normally, but under this pseudonym, or
     (b) use the account to play out a fictional character’s development; ie write all his or her updates and comments from the point of view of a fictional character and start a story within the medium (note players may need to create other fictional characters to ‘engage’ with them, and create dialogue, etc).

Additional to this, there will be a third category of accounts on this network – namely one or two ‘chatbots’ these being computer programs disguised as actual people, writing all their updates and comments in the style of humans (indeed human authors!).

At the end of the project we will all get together and vote on who we think is real, who we think is fictional and who we think is a robot. For more details on how to take part, go to

MLF: Could you give us a bit of background on Alan Turing and his importance to Manchester’s history, and what is significant about 2012?
RP: Well, obviously 2012 is the centenary of Turing’s birth, so there have been myriad events taking place in the city throughout the year. Although Turing wasn’t born in Manchester and arguably did his most important work elsewhere – in Cambridge, Bletchley Park, and famously thought-experimenting about David Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem in a meadow in Grantchester (his Newton’s Apple moment) – Turing did spend his last few years here in Manchester, working at the University. So to summarise: that’s inventing computers, cracking the Nazi Enigma code, and devising the Turing Test – elsewhere. Check, check, check. Formulating morphogenesis, his mathematical approach to pattern formation in nature (through reaction-diffusion equations) – here. Check. His unhappy demise came about whilst working at the university also, so there’s a double-edge to our civic appropriation of him.

MLF: How do Alan Turing and the Turing Text experiment link back to Comma Press?
RP: Comma has always been interested in the relationship between short fiction and ‘science narratives’ – be these thought experiments, case studies, discovery myths (‘Eureka moments’), or cautionary tales of future technologies. There’s a great deal of traffic between the two categories – more than scientists are often aware of. Indeed if scientists don’t take command of their own story-telling, their stories will only be told (and simplified) by others – namely politicians and the media who, of course, have other motivations.

For this reason, Comma has commissioned a whole series of ‘science-into-fiction’ anthologies, where scientists have consulted very closely in the composition of short fictions featuring scientific ideas, and have accompanied the stories with afterwords, explaining the science in greater detail. This series started with When It Changed, edited by Geoff Ryman, which was launched at MLF in 2009, and then continued with Litmus, which explored discovery stories from the history of science, and the forthcoming Bio-Punk, which extrapolates possible ‘cautionary tales’ from current bio-medical research (this book is being launched on Saturday 13 October at this year’s MLF; click here for more). We also have a collection of stories from Sara Maitland, due out next year, which is entirely based on science consultations.

The Litmus book also featured a story about Turing’s last Manchester-based theory, morphogenesis, so we’re not completely new to Turing territory as a publisher.

MLF: What other events is Comma connected with during this year’s Festival?
RP: As well as the Bio-Punk launch, we also have launches of four new single-author collections, from David Constantine and Pawel Huelle (Monday 8 October), and Adam Marek and Guy Ware (Sunday 21 October); four books we’ve been working on for a long time and perhaps represent what Comma is about better than anything else.

MLF: What has Comma got planned for the rest of the year that we should be looking out for?
RP: Our first smartphone app – provisionally called ‘Tramlines’ – is currently being devised by us in partnership with a company called Toru Interactive, with support from Literature Across Frontiers. This will be launched in April hopefully. There will also be a teaser event for it with Michelle Green and Roman Simic at this year’s MLF (Saturday 20 October). Next year we’d also like to commission our own Comma app for Android phones, and maybe a Comma Film app the year after that.

We also have a host of new Comma Film commissions (short film adaptations of poems) which will be premiered at MadLab on 6 December, in conjunction with Bokeh Yeah. We’ve also got the second collection of stories from the Kafka-esque genius that is Hassan Blasim, titled The Iraqi Christ. Hassan is coming over for a series of readings in December to launch the book. Early next year we’ll be launching books by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Sara Maitland and Michelle Green. We also have our first new writer anthology in a long time (get your submissions in soon if you want to be ‘discovered’!), plus a second collection of poetry from Gaia Holmes, an anthology of Dystopian short stories (‘Ten Years Asleep’) and a book of essays on short story structure. So lots to look out for!

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