“The Age of Botnik”: An Interview with Botnik CEO Jamie Brew

This interview originally appeared in the appendix of “Constellations Will Bring Forth Paris:” The Work of Benjamin in the Age of Botnik”, an essay by Nina Ellis: it is being republished on the Botnik Medium publication with their permission.

A closeup shot of a circuitboard.

Nina Ellis: What is the purpose of Botnik? Has your idea of its purpose changed since 2016?

Jamie Brew: From the start, the idea has been something like “find techniques from computer science that would be fun to write with, and build tools that implement them in the most fun way.” The biggest change in the last year has been answering the question “Fun for who? For all writers? For all kinda weird alternative writers? Or just for you, Jamie?” The purpose of Botnik these days is trying to push the answer closer to “everyone” without sacrificing the heart of it.

NE: Why do you think Botnik and Botnik-generated texts appeal to people?

JB: This is a huge topic (and a leading question!) but one way I like to think about it starts with the observation that regular speech and writing is often very automatic. I feel this most keenly when I’m talking with someone who’s using a lot of jargon, I’m silently trying to figure out “How much of what this person is saying is specific to me and this conversation, and how much is just the business/science/region-specific jargon they automatically say all the time?” Or I can ask the same question while listening to myself talk: what do I actually mean, and what am I saying almost out of habit? Some comedy, including some Botnik but also including some Clickhole, seems to me to be about this same question. And the way it asks the question is to break a format into its simplest pieces — its most common words, phrases and visual templates — and see how closely it resembles the original thing. If it’s indistinguishable, then the joke is on how formulaic the genuine article was to begin with.

Maybe a shorter answer is that we tend to play with texts and genres that people are deeply familiar with, so when our algorithmic approach yields something that’s wrong, we know immediately that it’s wrong, and there’s a sort of joy in realizing how well you know this book, or this genre, such that you can tell immediately when something does or doesn’t make sense.

NE: Would you say that Botnik creates art?

JB: Yeah, Botnik the group of people does, absolutely. The machines are their equipment, or maybe they’re the medium.

NE: What is the best way of creating a text in collaboration with Botnik? What is the ideal methodology?

JB: That’s definitely above my pay grade. With the predictive keyboard in particular, we see a bunch of different of styles, a bunch of different constraints that people give themselves with the tool. One of the most important steps I think often gets overlooked is one of the first: choose your source material. Once someone has decided to use the keyboard to combine Nirvana lyrics with user manuals for flatscreen TVs, there’s not a whole lot left to do but see what kinds of sentences fall out of that.

NE: Who is the author a text created in collaboration with Botnik?

JB: Me, Jamie Brew, the CEO of Botnik.

NE: What is the future of Botnik? Where do you see human-computer collaborations like this going?

JB: I expect we’ll continue to see A.I. tech that tries to help people do things as fast as they can while making the fewest possible decisions. I think one of Botnik’s roles is to resist that impulse and ask: “What decisions don’t we want to give away? What decisions do humans actually enjoy making?” That’s the challenge of making the hybrid tech we’re trying to make: offering people decisions they want to make.