May 05, 2006

Sentences found abandoned after joyride

Nick Montfort of Grand Text Auto has posted an essay consisting of one original question -- at least, I haven't been able to find the same words in the same order elsewhere on the web -- followed by seven sentences each of which was lifted verbatim from a different online source.

For your interpretive convenience, I've reproduced the essay below with the associated links made explicit:

Have you been following this whole Harvard student book plagiarism story?
(link) I’m sorry that this young girl, pushed by the needs of a publishing machine and, no doubt, by her own ambition, should have fallen into this trap so early in her career. [Salman Rushdie]
(link) But the fact is that although she has been manipulated and packaged, what has happened to her has very largely been her own fault. [Geoff Pullum]
(link) The thing is, it's not conventions of character and plot that Viswanathan is accused of copying, it's whole sentences of text. [Mark Liberman]
(link) But published scholarly literature is full of examples of writers using the texts, words and ideas of others to serve their own immediate purposes. [Russell Hunt]
(link) I believe it is also necessary at the outset to demonstrate how plundergraphia is distinct from plagiarism and reference, and shares little more than intention with found poetry. [Jason Christie]
(link) I think it's fair to say that most of us spend hours each day shifting content into different containers. [Kenneth Goldsmith]
(link) There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless. [Jorge Luis Borges]

As we expect from the author of Twisty Little Passages, this collage can be read in several ways. The knotty little rhetorical twists around sentences five, six, and seven make it hard to digest the post in its literal form. I prefer to read it as a sort of implicit edited volume, perhaps the seed of a sequel to The New Media Reader, mediated by successive Google searches rather than the succession of turning pages. But this presumes that Nick chose the sentences and their sources by hand, and I suspect that he's used an algorithm that will automatically compose random Frankenessays given some suggested words and sources. Or does that matter?

In any case, it's a surprise to discover that I've co-authored a blog post with Jorge Luis Borges, not quite 20 years after his death.

[Update: I was mistaken in accusing Nick of having invented the first sentence of his essay out of whole cloth -- it too was in fact taken from a web-accessible source, namely this post by TOS at the blog Chasing the Wanderlust...

Google simply had not indexed this post at the time that I searched.

I've also changed the title of this post to the Subject line of Nick's email to me, which began "Ouch -- I hope I didn't accidentally make that first sentence up."]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 5, 2006 12:08 AM