Pushcart 2015: Stephanie Strickland, “CAPTCHA” (Poem) from Boston Review

cranium chambered cairn and passage grave
bulging Neolithic earth mound enclosing the vault
calibrated stone to this standard surpasses us
lost too inner touch on bone pale solstice beam
dervish Snow Queen covens of raven rim her platinum
cloak downed traces of her sledge paused print a fine grid…

So again, I confess: I don’t get it. But this time, at least I think I get why I don’t get it. Fortunately, the poem is available online via the Boston Review tumblr for those better equipped.

I believe it’s set in a gaming environment, which is why I don’t get it. There is a game “Snow Queen”, but this becomes more apparent in the second group of stanzas, where the Emerald Viewer and avatars come into it. But without more of an understanding of the game, I’m afraid I’m left grasping at pixels for most of the poem.

I typically associate stanzas in couplets with some kind of relationship between two people. Could it in this case be between a player and the game? Or, more generally, between people and technology? That’s where the final stanza, powerful even though I wasn’t sure what had preceded it, drew me:

                                                  …you install
an IM app in your dream equip folding but unfading
tutelary mesmerie with chat while falling as a peregrine
tinsel buttercup foil painted roof ruined roof of the Plaza
verdigris mansard copper slate rushing toward her she could tell
by a tension in the air wire-fine overhead—one rustling
shift—time to be swept back to sea so typed in mistakenly
( no peregrine eye ) randomly assigned CAPTCHA squiggle
Turing test box of twisted-letter text to tag her

personhood denied

There’s a real finality to that close, a slamming of a door. But beyond that, it took a poem to get me to consider the strangeness of a machine deciding who is human and who isn’t, the strangeness of the necessity of creating a machine to arbitrate humanity. And, considering how many times I’ve failed the Captcha tests, to reflect on that. Just who’s in charge here? There are lots of Frankenstein-regrets—building-the-monster stories out there about computers, but this one carves it down to a singular moment, and a familiar, personal level.

But wait – there’s more! Isn’t there an alternative reading, perhaps the intended one, I don’t know. It’s the character in a game, or the computer itself, speaking. It sees the IM app installed, the “she”, became intrigued, and tried itself to tag her – only to be kept out by the automated gatekeeper, its personhood denied. Again, this harsh slamming of a door, no less poignant because it slams on circuits and code.

Interesting, where a poem I don’t understand can take me.
I also discovered something interesting about Captcha: reCaptcha. As I understand it (which isn’t that well, keep in mind), only one of the two words in a Captcha box is a test; the other is a word Googlebooks has failed to scan properly, and it’s a way of sort of crowdsourcing the corrections:

Beyond its obvious use for foiling bot attacks and would-be spammers, the reCAPTCHA Project has another, more altruistic purpose. Several years after introducing the world to CAPTCHA technology, von Ahn realized that, despite taking just a few seconds to type a CAPTCHA, humans were spending hundreds of thousands of hours each day typing in more than 100 million CAPTCHAs. reCAPTCHA technology was developed not merely with an eye toward improving cyber security, but also as a way to harness and reuse the collective human time and mental energy spent solving and typing CAPTCHAs—a concept von Ahn has dubbed “human computation.” By constructing CAPTCHAs using words tagged as unreadable in the digitizing of books and other printed material, millions and millions of cyber users play a part every day in the digitization and preservation of human knowledge by transcribing words. Tests have shown that reCAPTCHA textual images are deciphered and transcribed with 99.1% accuracy, a rate comparable to the best human professional transcription services. In just the first year after launching reCAPTCHA, humans correctly deciphered and transcribed more than 440 million words, roughly the equivalent of 17,600 books.

~~ Carnegie Mellon University CyLab

I’m still not sure how this works with single-word boxes, but it’s pretty interesting how first, the machine plays gatekeeper, and then, the person fixes what the computer can’t do. That’s a pretty interesting metaphor right there, worthy of another poem.


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