Google Bard’s Gothic Hallucinations

Yesterday I asked Google Bard the kind of question I’ve often wanted to ask a search engine.

Imagine you are a professor preparing a graduate seminar on 18th- and 19th-Century British Gothic Literature,” I instructed the machine. “What materials would you place on the syllabus, including a combination of primary texts and secondary criticism and interpretation, and how would you group them?”

This is a complex question, but the solution—as I understand it—should just be a series of search queries in which the most appropriate results are mapped into the LLM matrix to produce the output. Because Google is the market leader in search, and I’m not asking Bard to display its “personality” like Bing/Sydney (the “horniest” chatbot, as The Vergecast would have it), I thought this would be an ideal task for Bard.

Boy, was I wrong. Here is the syllabus Google Bard produced.*

On first glance, this looks like a valid, if unoriginal, syllabus. Bard has identified some representative primary texts matching the query and has chosen to present them chronologically, rather than thematically. That is a sane choice. And those texts actually exist.

Now let’s look at the secondary literature Bard wants students to grapple with. Bard has selected the following texts:

  • David Punter, The Gothic Imagination: A Critical History of Gothic Fiction from 1764 to the
    Present Day
  • Anne Williams, Gothic Literature (1994)
  • Stephen D. Gosling, Gothic Literature: A Cultural History (2000)
  • William Veeder, Gothic Fiction: A Critical Introduction (2005)
  • David Skidmore, Gothic Literature (2013)
  • Andrew James Smillie, Gothic Literature (2017)

“I would… group the secondary criticism and interpretation chronologically,” Bard says, “starting with Punter’s The Gothic Imagination, the first comprehensive critical history of Gothic fiction, and ending with Smillie’s Gothic Literature, the most recent critical history of the genre.” That sounds good, but none of these texts exist. Not one. Google Bard made up every one of the texts on this list, and several of the people listed there as well.

David Punter is, indeed, a scholar of gothic literature, but as far as I can tell has never produced a text entitled The Gothic Imagination: A Critical History of Gothic Fiction from 1764 to the Present Day. Anne Williams is Professor emeritus in the English department at UGA, but I cannot find an overview by Williams published in 1994 (though Art of Darkness:  A Poetics of Gothic, published in 1995, sounds fascinating). I can find no gothic scholar named Stephen D. Gosling, and obviously no cultural history Gosling may have authored. William Veeder was a professor at U. Chicago but never wrote Gothic Fiction: a Critical Introduction. And so on. None of these books exist.

Make of this what you will. I don’t think Bing or ChatGPT would do much better at this task right now, but it is only a matter of time until they will be able to deliver accurate results. In the meantime, the machine is confidently hallucinating. Caveat emptor.

Of course, I did ask Bard to “imagine” it is a professor. Maybe it took me too literally and “imagined” a bunch of books that would be great for graduate students to read. Perhaps I should have told Bard it is a professor and insisted that it deliver only real results.

There’s always next time.

* To be fair, Google warned me twice that this would happen.

The Haunted Delta

I am spending a couple days in Clarksdale, Mississippi. This morning I woke up and thought, the Delta is three-times haunted.

The Delta is haunted, first of all, by the absence of those who have left. Their homes crumble alongside the sinking highways, rotting to splinters among the rusted remains of their tools and toys and old cars and things. Now and again, an anachronistic busybody will roll down US-61 and reclaim a few of the old shacks for a museum, but the pickings are slim. The rot remains to remind the survivors of what has been.

The Delta is haunted as well by the significance of its past and the seeming insignificance of its present. Here in this room, the rough-hewn, wood-paneled parlor of an old sharecropper’s shotgun house, Muddy Waters stares at the Haint Blue-painted door from a poster on the wall above the bed. By the front door and on the bathroom wall, two separate travelers have commemorated “Flyover Country Road Trip” with permanent marker. Mark Twain and Muddy Waters imbued this place with meaning in the last two centuries. What animates it now but the spirit of those who have left?

Nature haunts the Delta, too. Last night a storm raged for hours outside the shack here. The wind poked and prodded at the old wooden panels, slamming the screen doors and creaking up and down the porch like a malevolent visitor in the night. In the lull, I could hear the wind rolling through the magnolia trees and across the vast black and brown field beyond like an intelligent thing. The spirit of the Mississippi River stalks the landscape here, ambivalent to the people hanging onto the black earth for life.

I love it here.

Cracker Barrel Ephemera

Things I can see on the wall at Cracker Barrel:

  • A trombone
  • A shotgun
  • A rusty woodworking plane
  • 2 wooden rolling pins, one with red stripes
  • An aqua-colored aluminum bundt cake pan
  • A stuffed largemouth bass
  • A framed Ray Charles album
  • A portrait of Etta James
  • A portrait of an unnamed middle-aged man in a double-breasted jacket
  • 4 cast iron skillets
  • 2 washing boards
  • 3 long-handled grill baskets
  • A large tin can labeled “Pure Lard”
  • 9 quart-sized cans of Orsi Pure Olive Oil
  • A tin advertisement for the Rio Grande Fence Company of Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Two wooden tennis rackets
  • A pair of water skis flanking a portrait of stunt skiers at Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida
  • A group portrait of the 168 members of the Nathan L. Strong Class of the Coudersport (Pennsylvania) Consistory of June, 1927

Friction: MFA at Work

Technology is supposed to make things better. Lately it seems as though, almost day by day, the tools and systems that surround us are growing more complex and less useful. Here is an example.

The mobile phone on my desk at work flashes a notification about once a week. “Update Apple ID Settings,” the notification advises me, because “some account services will not be available until you sign in again.” I click continue and a new screen appears, entitled “Apple ID for your organization.” The screen instructs me to continue to a web address where I may sign in to my account. I tap the screen to activate a large blue button labeled “Continue,” and a browser page showing my workplace’s login screen appears. I enter my password–encrypted and saved on the phone, thankfully–and a new screen appears presenting me with the option to verify my identity through a phone call or a text message. I select phone call, because I am unable to receive text messages on this phone. If I did happen to select text verification, here is what would happen: the screen would change again, displaying a message over a set of floating periods indicating that the verification server is awaiting my confirmation text message. Nothing would happen, however, and I would need to begin the process again.

A moment after selecting phone verification, the phone rings. I answer and an automated voice speaks:

“This is the Microsoft sign-in verification system,” the voice says. “If you are trying to sign in, press the pound key.”

I tap the small window at the top of the screen representing the call in progress. This leads to another screen, where I must tap the “Handset” area to open a virtual representation of an old phone handset. I then tap the area of the glass screen corresponding to the pound key.

“Your sign-in was successfully verified,” the voice responds. “Good-bye.” The blazing red notification bubble will never disappear until I take this action.

The entire interaction takes less than thirty seconds. It is irritating in the moment, but the process is easy enough that I don’t have to think much about it once I get started. If I refused to do so, however, after a while the software on my phone would stop working. First, I would lose the features furthest from the core of the phone. Apps that change often–productivity apps like Excel or OneNote, for example–would be first to go, blocked by a verification server requiring the newest version to operate. Next, I might start to lose access to some of the manufacturer’s frequently-updated software, like Maps and Photos. Finally, given enough time and system updates, even the most basic features like mail and text messages, and then the phone itself, would stop working, rendering the $1,000 computer less useful than a concrete block until I completed the ritual of verification.