The Bearable Lightness of

Highlights in human history: Hamlet, Mona Lisa, this cheeky website.

The critic David E. Nye has theorized that there might be an American technological sublime. That is, sometime during the Industrial Revolution, he writes, Americans substituted the seemingly divine awe they felt when looking at nature for the awe they experience gazing at machines. Trains, light bulbs, the a-bomb: The magnitude, the enormity of these, demand a reverence from us.

So, on this brisk, late autumn Thursday, I ask you: Is it possible that a single webpage, and its near miraculous URL, might evoke such a feeling in you?

The answer is yes. Here is the URL of that webpage:

And here is the full website visible thereon:

Indeed: It is a picture of a contented, cartoon butt. Seems simple. But visit the website itself, and you will find: The butt changes color when you click it.

Wait, there’s more: Click on one of the butt’s arms or legs, and they change color too. (I will not screenshot that, for I wish to leave to you the delight of discovery.) Neither, too, will I display a photograph of the Butt Generator working perfectly on a smartphone—that, too, is a magnum mysterium I will leave you to plumb.

The butt generator isn’t the only site of its kind. Single-serving sites—webpages that do one thing, and do it well—are an old Internet staple. There are useful sites, like “How Many People Are In Space Right Now?,” and there are little doodads, like Loudgif and Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle. The phenomenon has been well-described in the pleasingly meta “Is This Your Paper On Single Serving Sites?.com.

The Butt Generator is one of those, and though its effects might be celestial, it does have a human creator. Two, in fact: Their names are Le Wei and Mike Klein. I talked with Wei by email earlier this week. It turns out the Butt Generator is an unfinished work.

“It came out of a discussion we had during an after work commute,” writes Lei. “Originally we wanted to include a variety of adjustable butt parameters—size, shape, skin qualities, firmness... it was going to be extremely realistic.

“As a placeholder, we threw up the cartoon butt you see now, and added a bit of interactivity just for fun. Ultimately life got in the way of us fulfilling our full butt generation dreams, and Mike moved away to North Carolina.”

If this news seems to blemish the perfectitude of Butt Generator, remember: Few musical works surpass Mozart’s Requiem, but before he could finish that, life got in the way of him, too.

Wei said that aesthetic inspiration for the butt came from an old Gunshow webcomic, by K.C. Green. That comic concerns a butt that can skateboard.

One of these images was painted by the Dutch “Old Master” Rembrandt van Rijn; the other, by webcomic artist K.C. Green, depicts a butt. The reader may decide which is which.

I love the Butt Generator, even if it doesn’t really satisfy Nye’s sublime. I think this is why: While it’s a single serving site, it’s a thing even simpler than that. It’s a digital toy, made of HTML, not plastic; it’s uncomplicated, enthusiastic, and even sweet. It’s a thing that delights us briefly, has a wit of its own, which we then put it back on the shelf, to enjoy it later.

Created when Wei worked at Google, the Butt Generator just had its first birthday. She’s now a student at the Brooklyn-based School for Poetic Computation, which is how I discovered the site. That tiny institute’s motto is: “More poetry, less demo.”

To that, we humbly add: More butts.

Presented by

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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