Algorithmic Rape Jokes in the Library of Babel
On March 2, 2013, the KEEP CALM and DO WHATEVER meme reached peak terrible.
A t‑shirt company called Solid Gold Bomb was caught selling shirts with the slogan “KEEP CALM and RAPE A LOT” on them. They also sold shirts like “KEEP CALM and CHOKE HER” and “KEEP CALM and PUNCH HER”. The Internet—especially the UK Internet—exploded.
How did this happen?
Witness the completely fascination phenomenon of a store proprietor asking for forgiveness on the grounds that they did not know what they were selling.
Although we did not in any way deliberately create the offensive t‑shirts in question and it was the result of a scripted programming process that was compiled by only one member of our staff, we accept the responsibility of the error and our doing our best to correct the issues at hand. We’re sorry for the ill feeling this has caused!
Solid Gold Bomb apology statement as quoted on ITV
Amazon’s spam problems are well documented. The Kindle store is awash in books confusingly similar to bestsellers. Companies like Icon Group International offer highly specific books like The 2013 Import and Export Market for Sawn, Chipped, Sliced, or Peeled Non-Coniferous Wood over 6 Millimeters Thick in New Zealand. Icon’s books are created by a patented system. The system’s creator Philip M. Parker says he’s planning to go after romance novels next.
For those unable to compete with Parker’s patented content generators, but interested in getting in on the action, there are options. The Private Label Rights industry creates content that can be bought and repackaged however you see fit. Straight plagiarism is another option and there’s a whole subculture of products that generate unique text with simple thesaurus rewriting tools called content spinners.
Or you could take the lyrics from “this is the song that never ends”, paste 700 pages worth of them into a Kindle file and sell that.
Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel twisted through the logic of SEO and commerce.
Amazon ‘stocks’ more than 500,000 items from Solid Gold Bomb. These things only barely exist. They are print on demand designs. The contents were created through some kind of mix’n’match mad libs algorithm, and then through Amazon’s APIs automatically added to the database at whatever limit Amazon allows. If anyone ever bought one, it would then be printed and shipped to the customer.
James Bridle’s For Our Times: 50 Pirate Works consists of fifty copies of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Each copy’s contents have been reworked in some way, ranging from changing just a few letters, to significant rewrites, to algorithmic transformations of the text.
These were then printed and bound and put on display at a gallery. This last step is important.
…in spite of the fact that we did not in any manner deliberately make the unsavory shirts being referred to and it was the effect of a scripted customizing process…even though we did not in any manner deliberately make the unpalatable shirts being referred to…we did not in any avenue deliberately make the disagreeable shirts being referred to…
There is a popular joke in business books about pricing schemes. A man encounters a boy selling pencils by the side of the road. A pencil stand! He stops by, impressed at the young gentleman’s entrepreneurial spirits. Asks how much they are, thinking that he’ll encourage the child.
“1 millions dollars,” comes the reply.
“1 million dollars! I don’t think you’ll be selling many at that price, young man.”
“Sir, I only need to sell one.”
Part of what tips the algorithmic rape joke t‑shirts over from very offensive to shockingly offensive is that they are ostensibly physical products. Intuitions are not yet tuned for spambot clothes sellers.
Better tune those intuitions fast. Spambot everything sellers are well on their way.
When heralding the age of mass customization and the rise of rapid prototyping it is easy to get enthusiastic. Even when talking about what could go wrong, people typically stop at “but a lot of amateurs will generate bad early attempts”. Talk about crapjects and strange shaper subcultures still gives the whole threat a kind of artisanal feel. The true scale of object spam will be much greater.
Yes, lowered barriers to entry mean more small scale making and writing. Yes, domestic rapid fabrication and print on demand services open the floodgates to amateur designers and authors. They open the floodgates to algorithms too.
When the dotCom boom was happening and Amazon was founded, people began talking derisively about ‘brick and mortar’ operations as clumsy dinosaurs, clearly doomed to extinction. The notion was that these new agile internet sellers were a different category of thing. Though most of the irrationally exhuberantly funded etailers of the time have long since passed away, those people were more right than we knew.
Amazon isn’t a store, not really. Not in any sense that we can regularly think about stores. It’s a strange pulsing network of potential goods, global supply chains, and alien associative algorithms with the skin of a store stretched over it, so we don’t lose our minds.
Object spam is a pernicious problem in Second Life.
The apology letter that now makes up Solid Gold Bomb’s About, Contact Us, and Our Apology pages explains how it happened in detail. After KEEP CALM and CARRY ON Ltd applied for a trademark, Solid Gold Bomb founder Michael Fowler decided to create a flood of parodies. He gathered up a list of words, threw them into a script and pressed ‘go’.
Fowler describes culling a list of ‘millions’ of generated phrases down to 700, and checking the phrases for graphical approximation to the original, apparently without noting the contents.
He claims to be as surprised as the rest of us that an offensive combination ended up in the database. (In fact, several offensive combinations showed up, which is to be expected if you put words like ‘rape’ or ‘choke’ or ‘hit’ in your list of verbs.)
We simply do not produce poor humour or offensive products and are primarily known for our sporting related products and icon series that are based around similar techniques. As a father, husband, brother and son, I would never promote such product in our company and it was clear to see this when looking across the millions of t‑shirts that we offer or can produce on demand.
Solid Gold Bomb founder Michael Fowler, Our Apology
Apologizing by categorically denying that you would ever do the thing you were caught doing represents a special kind of non-apology.
In 2011, 2 pricing algorithms ended up in a war on Amazon. 1 wanted to sell books for slightly lower that the next highest price. The other wanted to sell books for 1.27059 higher than the lowest price. The result was a staggering upward climb peaking at $23,698,655.93 for an out of print paperback about flies.
They’d have only needed to sell one.
Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings is a generative art piece that uses both sound and images.
Well, part of it is that it was an extremely good value (laughter) because it was possible to make a lot of work from a very small amount of original material.
Michael Calore Brian Eno Q&A: The Infinite Art of 77 Million Paintings in Wired
77 Million Paintings is available on Amazon. It was also performed in Second Life.
Quinn Norton once proposed a computer program that would generate all the possible melodies in the world. Having then rendered the output into a perfect complete symphony, it could be released under whatever copyright license the generator wanted, thus cutting off or making freely available every song into perpetuity.
Georgina Voss has it right.
People, enough of the ‘A big algorithm did it and ran away’ explanations (eg. iam.peteashton.com/keep-calm-rape…) — algorithms have politics too
— Georgina Voss (@gsvoss) March 2, 2013
Pete Ashton argues that—because the jokes were generated by a misbehaving script—“as mistakes go it’s a fairly excusable one, assuming they now act on it”. He suggests that the reason people got so upset was a lack of digital literacy. I suggest that the reason people got upset was that a company’s shoddy QA practices allowed a rape joke to go live.
Anyone who’s worked with software should know that the actual typing of code is a relatively small part of the overall programming work. Designing the program before you start coding, and debugging it after you’ve created it is the bulk of the job.
Generative programs are force multipliers. Small initial decisions can have massive consequences. The greater your reach, the greater your responsibility to manage your output. When Facebook makes an error that affects 0.1% of users, it means 1 million people got fucked up.
‘We didn’t cause a rape joke to happen, we allowed a rape joke to happen,’ is not a compelling excuse. It betrays a lack of digital literacy.
Algorithms as excuse.
Algorithms as plausible deniability for your poor taste.
“We apologize for any offence our algorithms may have caused” is right up there with “the motive of the algorithm is still unclear” as strange markers of a strange time.
We’re sad for the sick feeling this has brought on! We’re sad for the queasy feeling this has brought on! We’re sad for the ailing feeling this has brought about!
You can send me email.
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