A Short History of Procedurally Generated Text

John Ohno
14 min readFeb 13, 2020

An edited version of this story has been published on tedium. This is an expanded version of the original draft.

AI is in the news a lot these days, and journalists, being writers, tend to be especially interested in computers that can write. Between OpenAI’s GPT-2 (the text-generating ‘transformer’ whose creators are releasing it a chunk at a time out of fear that it could be used for evil), Botnik Studios (the comedy collective that inspired the “we forced a bot to watch 100 hours of seinfeld” meme), and National Novel Generation Month (henceforth NaNoGenMo — a yearly challenge to write a program that writes a novel during the month of November), when it comes to writing machines, there’s a lot to write about. But if you only read about writing machines in the news, you might not realize that the current batch is at the tail end of a tradition that is very old.

A TIMELINE OF PROCEDURAL TEXT GENERATION

1230 BC: The creation of the earliest known oracle bones.

9th century BC: The creation of the I Ching, an extremely influential text for bibliomancy.

1305: The publication of the first edition of Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna, whose later editions introduced combinatorics.

1781: Court de Geblin, in his book Le Monde Primitif, claims ancient origins for tarot & ties it, for the first time, deeply to cartomancy. Tarot is now one of the most popular systems for turning random arrangements of cards into narratives, and numerous guides exist for using tarot spreads to plot books

1906: Andrey Markov describes the markov chain.

1921: Tristan Tzara publishes ‘How To Write a Dadaist Poem’, describing the cut-up technique.

1945: Claude Shannon drafts “Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems”.

1948: Claude Shannon publishes “A Mathematical…

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John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net