In 2002 Philip Auslander and Herbert Blau engaged in a debate about the emergence of chat bots and the subsequent implications of their presence in performance. This debate took place in the pages of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art in the January edition. What follows is a description of their perspectives and arguments in relation to this issue, their rhetorical tactics, and the shortcomings of their arguments.
A Summary of the Debate
Auslander’s Perspective and Argument
Auslander’s LIVE FROM CYPERSPACE starts with an overview of his position on the influence and change instigated by broadcast media, specifically radio. Here he asserts that it was the rise of radio that obscured the relationship between the audience and the performer, necessitating the use of “live” as a signal word to audiences in order to indicate that a performance was not pre-recorded. The nature of the broadcast machine that is radio “does not allow you to see the sources of the sounds you’re hearing; therefore, you can never be sure if they’re live or recorded. Radio’s characteristic form of sensory deprivation crucially undermined the clear-cut distinction between recorded and live sound” (Auslander 17). Paramount to this discussion is the question of liveness. Early in the article Auslander provides the reader with a clear definition of “live.” For this article he pulls the definition from the Oxfored English Dictionary. The definition of live reads: “Of a performance, event, etc.: heard or watched at the time of its occurrence; esp. (of a radio or television broadcast, etc.) not pre-recorded” (Oxford University Press).
Of the utmost importance to Auslander is how the “live” exists in a dependent relationship to the recorded. That is, the “live” is defined by what it is not – it is not pre-recorded – rather than what it is. His position here is that prior to the advent of broadcast media there was no need to differentiate between the pre-recorded and the live performance; simply put, there was no cognitive or economic construct that necessitated a distinction between the live and recorded. One always knew if they were listening to a recording (because of their forced interaction with a playback machine) or attending a performance. The argument follows that it is only in a circumstance where the listener cannot personally confirm that a performance has not been pre-recorded that the terminological distinction of “live” is necessary.
Recording technology brought the live into being, but under conditions that permitted a clear distinction between the existing mode of performance and the new one. The development of broadcast technology, however, obscured that distinction, and thus subverted the formerly complementary relationship between live and recorded modes of performance. (Auslander 17)
With this position clearly articulated and codified he transitions to the topic of web-based bots. In the case of web-technologies the term bot is shorthand for robot and is in reference to a class of programs that run autonomously. These programs are designed for specific tasks and operate within the parameters of their programming. Auslander takes some time to describe search engines as a kind of bot. A query to Google, for example, is handled by a bot that searches an index of web-pages and returns results that match the query. Another kind of bot common on the web is the chatbot. Programmed to engage in conversation with a user, the “best-known chatterbot is Eliza, the program that interrogates the user in the manner of a Rogerian psychotherapist, developed at MIT in 1966” (Auslander 18). Auslander goes on to discuss the ever-growing presence of the bot in web-based interactions. In a crescendo of panic he laments that “although you can still choose to converse with a chatterbot, it is now possible to be engaged in conversation with one without knowing it. Chatterbots can and do participate in online chatrooms and e-mail lists without necessarily being identified as bots” (Auslander 19). Using his previously established position on the definition of live as emergent from the development of radio Auslander is ready for the next transition in his argument. In bold strokes he draws parallels between the rise of recorded media and the distribution mechanism of radio, and the development of bots (specifically the chatbot) and the distribution mechanism of the web. Further, he suggests that “the chatterbot forces the discussion of liveness to be reframed as a discussion of the ontology of the performer rather than that of the performance” (Auslander 20). As he works to clarify the significance of these linguistic intruders he uses the writing of Herbert Blau to make his point:
The magnitude of the challenge chatterbots pose to current conceptions of liveness becomes evident when we consider how both the ontology and the value of live performance have been construed in performance theory, which often invokes the performer’s materiality and mortality to describe liveness in existential terms. In Blooded Thought, Herbert Blau declares dramatically that “In a very strict sense, it is the actor’s mortality which is the actual subject [of any performance], for he is right there dying in front of your eyes.” (Auslander 20)
Finally Auslander concludes his argument by specifying that the chatbot “undermines the idea that live performance is a specifically human activity.” Adding that, “it subverts the centrality of the live, organic presence of human beings to the experience of live performance,” ending with a warning and frantic call to arms that “it casts into doubt the existential significance attributed to live performance” (Auslander 21).
Blau’s Perspective and Argument
Immediately following Auslander’s warning about the impending automation of live performance is Blau’s response, THE HUMAN NATURE OF THE BOT: a response to Philip Auslander. Blau begins by clarifying his position on liveness in relation to theatre and film. Interrogating the liveness of theatre he laments that “everything was so unenlivening in its predictability, so insusceptible to the unexpected, so invariable once staged, that it seemed (to use an image from another era) like a carbon copy of itself.” In addition to describing a faded representation of what it once was, Blau continues that “as for the text, when the play was the thing, it might have done better in a reading without any actors at all (22). Blau later describes the behavior of actors as looking “canned” and “thoroughly coded and familiar.” In the jargon of theatre one might call this a description of formulaic productions: performances crafted according to a recipe that combines a predetermined ratio of aesthetic elements and plot twists ultimately producing something that feels flat and uninspired despite being visually beautiful.
Addressing this issue of flattened experience, Blau takes issue with Auslander’s objection to the use of bots on the web and the declaration that “it can be impossible to know whether you are conversing with a human being or a piece of software” (Auslander 19). Blau counters by reminding Auslander that “it may be chastening to remember—you may be conversing with a human being and feel the same way, as if the person were programmed.” This then “may suggest that liveness is variable in definition, with inflections of value through a spectrum of meaning from being alive to being lively” (Blau, Nature of the Bot 22-23). Blau makes a hard transition to examine the programmed experience of chatbots. Here he states that bots, as programmed virtual entities, exist as a kind of human mimic that could not be possess any sense of liveness “were it not for the omnipresent shadow of the apparently vanished being, who, dead or alive, endows the notion of liveness with meaning or substance to begin with” (23). His coup de grâce comes as he questions Auslander’s frenzied final statement:
Auslander says that the chatterbot “casts into doubt the existential significance attributed to live performance,” but I’m not quite sure what sort of doubt he has in mind. We’re obviously engaged with a technology of production capable of making of performance something other than “a specifically human activity,” but it is the specifically human activity that—if not reproduced by the bot, which draws its material from data bases—remains the inalienable referent around which the data’s collected, just as the human conversation is the datum from which, by whatever ambiguous means, the chatterbot proceeds (Blau, Nature of the Bot 23).
While both authors have their share of compelling moments in their articles, they also face some steep shortcomings in the presentation of their arguments. Auslander falls short by placing too much stake in the OED. In doing so he fails to correctly interrogate the problem of the ambiguity of language. The current edition of the OED online has ten different definitions for the word “live” that comprise over 4200 words of definition, description, history, and example. In fact, he uses only eighteen words of this definition as the definitive authority by which all questions of liveness are measured. While the OED is unquestionably a respected authority about the development and use of language, this point is worth belaboring if only because Auslander himself heavy-handedly references this definition, and this definition alone in terms of how to frame liveness, on four of the six pages of his article. While he does invoke Blau and Phelan in a short discussion about performance theory, he does not adequately address any issues about the ambiguity and complexity of language. This seems to be an especially pressing concern when dealing with a term whose history in relationship to performance has only appeared as of the 1930’s (Auslander 16). Here his argument would be more compelling if it also included some examination of the use and history of the word “performance.”
An important consideration in examining Auslander’s position on bots is that he incorrectly describes the operation of search engines. He states that, “the bot itself actually searches the web electronically, locates sites containing that key word, and reports back to you” (Auslander 18). While this may be the case for some search engines, it is certainly not common practice for search today. Todays’ search engines still rely on indexes of cached (saved versions) web-pages for their operation. While a database of cached pages is collected by bots for search engines, search does not operate in real-time the way that Auslander suggests. This is a minor error in his description of search, but it also belies a potentially larger misrepresentation of the technology. In order for his argument to meaningfully resonate it must be based on an impeccable understanding of the technologies he describes. For the technologically literate reader this mistake is an indicator that his conclusion may be based only upon a partial understanding of a premise.
Blau in his fervent efforts to counter Auslander’s claims makes the mistake that is highlighted in Auslander’s analysis of the definition of “live.” Specifically, Auslander takes issue with the practice of defining a term in relationship to what it is not. In the case of the OED, a “live” event is not pre-recorded. Blau makes this same mistake; in writing about bots in a performance he states that “they’d hardly have any presence at all, any sense of liveness whatever, were it not for the omnipresent shadow of the apparently vanished being, who, dead or alive, endows the notion of liveness with meaning or substance to begin with” (Blau, Nature of the Bot 23). Reductively one could restate this as: Bots are bots because they’re not human. Further, Blau seems to suggest that the condition of humanity itself is what gives liveness any meaning. This privileging of the human perspective of self-awareness feels narrow. To the point, it reads as belligerently narrow. One could easily speculate about the state of the scientific community today had the succeeding method of discourse been to celebrate anecdote as evidence rather than empirical data. Ultimately, both authors fail to demonstrate the validity of their conclusions with anything other than philosophizing and empty appeals to authority.
Auslander, Philip. “Live from Cyberspace: or, I was sitting at my computer this guy appeared he thought I was a bot.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.1 (2002): 16-21.
Blau, Herbert. “The Human Nature of the Bot: a response to Philip Auslander.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.1 (2002): 22-24.