Skip navigation

What Are Bob and Alice saying? [Mis]communication and Intermediation Between Language and Code

What Are Bob and Alice saying? [Mis]communication and Intermediation Between Language and Code

Lammin, Hannah ORCID: 0000-0002-9752-9335 (2022) What Are Bob and Alice saying? [Mis]communication and Intermediation Between Language and Code. Language Games – Leonardo Electronic Almanac, 23 (1):7. ISSN 1071-4391 (Online)

35472_LAMMIN_What_are_Bob_and_Alice_saying.pdf - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.

Download (217kB) | Preview


Natural language interfaces enable intuitive conversational interactions with computational devices, whilst rendering the inner workings of these technologies opaque. However, such interfaces can also produce events of miscommunication between computers and their human users, which draw attention to the nonhuman logic operating inside the black box. This essay examines one such instance of miscommunication: the case of ‘Bob’ and ‘Alice,’ a pair of chatbots developed by Facebook that were shut down in 2017 because they started conversing in a language of their own. It takes this story as an occasion to examine the constitution of linguistic sense—and what happens to language when it is translated into code and back again. An excavation of the historical development of code demonstrates that it is fundamentally imbricated with language, thereby complicating any distinction between human and machinic ways of encoding the world. Nevertheless, speech, writing and code can each be seen to operate according to different discursive regimes that constitute what N. Katherine Hayles characterizes as distinct ‘worldviews.’ The essay will consider Bob and Alice’s idiosyncratic linguistic behavior from the perspectives of these worldviews, to show how sense is separated from non-sense in each discursive context. It will then compare the bots’ use of language to the practices of noise music, Dada poetry and high-frequency trading. Placing Bob and Alice’s output in this broader context allows us to conceive the subject of language in non-humanistic terms, and to conceive their ‘miscommunication’ not as an error, but as a creative act.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: natural language interface; linguistics; code; machine learning; media archaeology; noise; computational creativity
Subjects: P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Faculty / School / Research Centre / Research Group: Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences > School of Design (DES)
Related URLs:
Last Modified: 11 Mar 2022 17:31

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item


Downloads per month over past year

View more statistics