Constellation Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino (1923-1985)

Italo Calvino is perhaps the Italian writer who most famously opened up a dialogue between literature and science. An avid reader of the magazine Scientific American, Calvino organised his books by following mathematical principles, based his sci-fi stories on solid scientific theories, and was deeply inspired by information science. Among his less-known stories, there is one titled ‘World Memory.’ Here the protagonist is faced with the difficult task of having to select the information about the human race worth being saved and transmitted after the end of our civilisation. Calvino, as a writer, faced the same impossible task of choosing his own stories from the vast chaos of human experience. Computers, with their ability to quickly process a vast amount of data clearly appealed to him as the perfect allies in this task. But did Calvino really wish to replace human writers with Artificial Intelligence systems? Not quite. In his famous essay “Cybernetics and Ghosts” (1967) he explained his views on computer-generated literature. Rather than focussing on the (eerie) question “Can a machine write a novel?”, Calvino focussed on the act of reading. Literature’s human element is not in the composition, but rather in the consumption: a computer may write millions of stories—some good, some bad, some nonsensical. However, only a human reader is capable to appreciate them, to feel moved, bored, interested. There may well be a ghost in the machine, but, as Calvino believed, it surely cannot read.

The Oulipo legacy

Calvino’s interest for mathematics and information science applied to literature naturally led him to become a member of the Parisian group OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or “workshop of potential literature”). Founded in 1960 by French writer Raymond Queneau, the Oulipo brought together writers and scientists (mostly mathematicians) who wanted to experiment with constrained writing techniques. The most famous work resulting from this experience is Queneau’s curious book A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems: each line of the ten sonnets contained in the book is written on a different stripe of paper. The reader, by turning a single stripe at a time, can mix and recombine the sonnets’ verses and create up to 100,000,000,000,000 different poems. Calvino’s ultimately unsuccessful experiment with computer-generated novels, too, sparked from his participation to the Oulipo group.

Paul Braffort in the land of Lagando

A computer scientist, a poet, and a singer: this was Paul Braffort. Both members of the Oulipo, Braffort and Calvino worked together, as the Italian writer needed a programmer to help him with the technical side of his computer-generated project. In 1981, Braffort funded ALAMO (Atelier de Littérature Assistée par la Mathématique et les Ordinateurs), another group interested in applying mathematics, and computer science more specifically to literature. ALAMO’s declared goal was to continue the experiment narrated by Jonathan Swift in The Gulliver’s Travels, in which the protagonist, in the land of Lagando, encounters a machine called ‘The Engine’. Often referred to as the first appearance of any sort of computer-like technology in literature, the Engine is described as capable of randomly combining words from different languages so as to create texts via permutations.

Albert Ducrocq and his robot in a fur coat

The early days of cybernetics are populated by a strange zoo of animal robots: among the most notable were Norbert Wiener’s ‘moth’, Walter Grey William’s ‘tortoise’, the ‘mice’ manufactured by the British company Mullard. The most peculiar, and perhaps creepiest, is Albert Ducrocq’s renard électronique, the ‘electronic fox.’ The automaton, which was built to avoid any source of energy, automatically backed off any time someone came near it. In all truth, its appearance was not at all inviting: its mechanic shell was covered with real fox fur, so the robot ended up looking like a walking toupee. Beside his work as a robotician, Ducrocq was also a famous science communicator in France. His 1963 book on cybernetics and the origin of the Universe, Le roman de la matière: cybernétique et univers, was published in Italy by Einaudi thanks to Calvino’s intervention, who at the time worked for the same publishing house.

Enough with chess, let’s talk about poetry!

The history of technology is full of self-moving machines—from Leonardo Da Vinci’s mechanical knight to the 18th Century automata writing letters or playing piano. What changed with cybernetics, however, was that people started considering the possibility for machines to reproduce themselves (John Von Neumann), think (Alan Turing, Claude Shannon), have self-awareness, and be creative (Douglas Hofstadter). Hofstadter even imagined an Artificial Intelligence that, bored with playing chess, asks its human user to discuss poetry instead. AI intrigued writers, Calvino’s included. In The Castle of Crossed Destinies, he paints the image of a future world only populated by “calculators and butterflies.” Rather than a depressing prediction, Calvino wanted instead to express hope in the possibility for the Universe to survive human extinction and still retain beauty and meaning.

Borges and the dream of the universal library

It is undisputed that Luis Borges deeply influenced Calvino’s work. For instance, the title The Castle of Crossed Destinies is a direct reference to Borges’ collection of short stories The Garden of Forking Paths. The book includes the text “The Library of Babel,” in which Borges imagines an infinite library where texts multiply by means of permutations. For Calvino, a member of the Oulipo, interested in the possibility offered by computer-generated literature, Borges’ image of a universal library containing an infinite number of texts, created by combining signs and meaning was extremely inspiring. One of Borges’ sources of inspiration was the ‘infinite monkey theorem,’ stated by the French mathematician Émile Borel in 1913.  The theorem states that, given an infinite amount of time, a monkey randomly striking the keys of a typewriter will, after millions of random attempts, type any work ever written by William Shakespeare.

The hypertext and the Kubla Khan

In 1797, after a night of opium-fuelled dreams, S. T. Coleridge tried to collect his nocturnal visions in a poem titled Kubla Khan: Or a Vision in a Dream. The text describes Xanadu, the astonishing and mysterious summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China, Kublai Khan. Almost two centuries later, in 1967, the information technologies pioneer Ted Nelson, named the first hypertext project after Coleridge’s poem: Project Xanadu. Like the underground rivers mysteriously connecting Kublai Khan’s palace to the rest of the world, Nelson’s goal was to create a network of texts. Xanadu project is still ongoing: some thinks that it is because it is too complex to be completed, while others calls it the longest-running vapourware story in computer history. However, Nelson was not the first to imagine a hypertext system. In 1945, Vannevar Bush shared his ideas for a ‘Memex’, an electromechanical device functioning much like the Web.

Leibniz, I Ching and binary code

I Ching is a Chinese ancient divination book. The text is made of 64 units or hexagrams. Each hexagram is made of 6 lines, either continuous or broken, and has a specific meaning. I Ching holds an important role in the history of computing because its visual language is at the base of computers’ binary code. Indeed Gottfried Leibniz, the philosopher and mathematician who, among other things, invented the binary system, was inspired by I Ching, which he first introduced in Europe in 1703. Leibniz interpreted the broken lines of the hexagrams as the 0, and the continuous lines as the 1. Calvino, too, took inspiration from I Ching for his book Invisible Cities, which is considered a prototype of digital hypertexts. Thus, Invisible Cities is made of 64 parts: 55 city descriptions plus 9 dialogues between Marco Polo the Kublai Khan.

Arata Isozaki’s Invisible Cities

In 1966, Arata Isozaki was a young architect who had already made a name for himself, both in Japan, working with Kenzo Tange, and internationally. That year, he published an essay titled “Invisible City” (Mienai toshi), in which he discussed how the new information society required a new approach to urban planning. In doing so, he quoted Norbert Wiener and the cybernetic concept of “feedback”. Only six years after, Calvino published a book under almost the same title: Invisible Cities. Isozaki was well-known in Italy, as he took part to the 1968 Milan Triennale exhibition, but there is no evidence that Calvino knew about his essay. The similarities, however, go well beyond the title as they both reflect on how, after the advent of computers and cybernetics, space is no longer defined by material elements, but by paths of information. Cities become invisible.

Computers are not prostitutes

In 1976, IBM programmer William Skyvington sent a heated letter to Italo Calvino in which he told him computers should be treated like “real women” and not “prostitute”. That was the end of their collaboration. What led to that? Calvino was planning to write a computer-generated novel. He needed an algorithm capable to combine the four characters and twelve criminal acts he created in order to produce multiple story plots using the same “building blocks”. After having laid out all the rules and theoretical background, Calvino needed a computer programmer to write the code. Skyvington seemed the right man for the job, until their respective ideas of computer-generated literature started clashing and Calvino was accused of seeing computers as mere tools and not as the complex technologies they were.

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