Great books—books that change the way we see the world, books that spur us along our paths as people and cultures—are, in their way, patents. They are innovations made manifest. They are ideas that are claimed by an author on behalf of the rest of us. They are cultural products that concern themselves, when they are at their very best, with hammocks.
The artist and developer Sam Lavigne has taken these connections to a delightfully logical conclusion. Over at github, he posted a program that renders texts—literary, philosophical—as patent applications. "In short," Lavigne explains, "it reframes texts as inventions or machines."
So! Kafka's The Hunger Artist becomes "An apparatus and device for staring into vacancy." Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology becomes "A device and system for belonging to bringing-forth." And—my personal favorite—The Communist Manifesto becomes "A method and device for comprehending theoretically the historical movement."
Said "method and device," its automated patent-ese informs us, "comprises a sentimental veil, a mere instrument, a whole surface, a modern working condition, an essential product, a poor stock-in-trade, heavy artillery, a present system, a feudal system, a great factory, a collective product, a last resort, a
transcendental robe, and a bribed tool."
This is absurd, of course, both in a general sense and in a reductio-ad sense. (And you can play around with the program—and learn more about how Lavigne created it—here.) But the program is also, in its way, fairly profound. The age of the algorithm is also an age that finds the line between human ingenuity and digital ingenuity growing ever more faint. There is perhaps more overlap than ever between novelties of "method" and novelties of "device."
As Lavigne explains:
I was partially inspired by Paul Scheerbart’s Perpetual Motion Machine, a sort of technical/literary diary in which Scheerbart documents and reflects on various failed attempts to create a perpetual motion machine. Scheerbart frequently refers to his machines as “stories” – I wanted to reverse the concept and transform stories into machines.
In other words? Machines are much more than "a mere instrument"; they are "a whole surface, a modern working condition, an essential product." Machines have ideas embedded in them—and vice versa.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.