Halftone Image of Crowd

The Story

Below you can read the text that we knit together from the algorithm output. Some of it makes sense. Some if it doesn't. While you're reading, think about why that might be.

Narrative Context:

The narrative consists of several nested layers and takes about 20 minutes to read.

The first layer opens in the European middle ages and features the characters Mannum, an evil monarch who starts a war with a bioweapon which turns into a pandemic, and a doctor by the name of Piranesi, who may or may not have helped Mannum with the development of this weapon. The pandemic referred to here is the Plague.

In the second layer we discover that the story of Mannum and Piranesi is the plot of a graphic novel. A little African American girl is reading the graphic novel about a bioengineered plague while listening to a newscast about a pandemic, a referent for the Aids crisis.

The third layer reveals that both the girl and her reading material are elements of a novel that a young man is writing while isolated during the present-day COVID19 pandemic.

The three pieces of concept art that you'll encounter as you read are by Sara Laubscher.

Here's the story: 

In the Classroom

Who is the International Committee of the Dead? Are they dead themselves, or somehow “in charge” of the dead? Like many passages, it raises more questions than it answers. At first glance, this passage might seem like an AI glitch, but I think it’s a triumph. While the content is strange, it is unique. This material does not appear in our training data – for whatever reason, the AI has produced it all on its own. Being unique, it’s perfect ground for new perspectives through discussion and music. - RL

Researcher notes

In the Classroom

When we gave the algorithm prompts, some of these were pronouns, such as 'They' repeated in the paragraph on the right, while others were nouns such as 'The pandemic' or dependent clauses such as 'It sounded like'. We wanted to see what the algorithm would choose to do with these different kinds of prompts. You can read the results in the story: the paragraphs were kept largely intact when extracted from the algorithm's output. - CH

Researcher notes

So the survivors tried to innovate. They invented new ways of living. They adapted to survive. They made something new. They made something new for themselves. They had to deal in the new worlds that were born. They had to develop new means of existence. They had to find new ways to survive. They had to find new ways to increase their chances of survival. They had to invent ways to reach the promised land.


They came to a real leader, they said to each other. A real man, not a fake leader, not an actor who pretended to be a leader. He was real. He lived, and he led his people to a real leader. This real man was the one they called their real leader. He was named Mannum, and Mannum knew this about himself; he had practiced seduction and charm the long time. He was a good liar, a real one.


The pandemic of war had begun.

Part One

In the first week, the cries were unanswered. In the first week, there were no tests. In the first week, there were no antibiotics. In the first week, there were no vaccines. In the first week, there was no information. In the first week there were no antibiotics. In the first week, there were no antibiotics.  


The bubonic plague, the virus, the bacterium, the buboeze, the buboze, the buboease, were all named after characters from fairy tales. The buboes and the buboplus are derived from the Latin words for cloud, os, and pou. They were used in the olden days to refer to the parts of the sky. For example, in Latin, the word for cloud is equivocalos, clouded question, and in English it would be used to describe anything that was too murky or unclear.


The bubonic plague, the virus, the bacterium, the bacterium, the bacterium, it was named after a fairy tale.



Piranesi: “That was merely an association of people with common flesh, which in the last analysis consists of mere fellows who happen to be far from their homes. But it would serve no purpose either, since so many of those folk are already dead or would become so no more if raw meat or even the victim of some other past misadventure were to be substituted for bodies, which are, if they were dead, put at the point of death intact, at once insane or sound and sane. We banish from our prisons those who are insane and those who are sound, just so that all my men may be healthy and no disease may arise therefrom.” 


“In truth,” rejoined I, ”this would make things difficult; many people would be lost, for that a mere association of folks would not have members who were sound; and some combination of persons already sick with such a loss of members among the six others who are terminally ill would be manifestly unsuited for their convenience.”


“But that will not be necessary,” said Piranesi. “I say, not.”

In the Classroom

From the pre-2000 data set the algorithm presented us with two names: Mannum, the name of a small Australian town, and Piranesi. In the story these are the evil king and his advisor who assists in disseminating  a bio-engineered virus for population control. 

Giovanni Battista Piranesi was a prominent 18th century artist and architect and it's interesting that the algorithm identified this name with a political advisor. -CH

Researcher notes

I agree with you,” replied I; “I have full enough corporations in my kingdom, and in that few there must be upon which I can buy the supposed delights of plague.” 


“Then, friend,” said Piranesi, “make death eternal in the liquor laws, so that no sick person may return to drink after consuming what they drank.” 


“Paler still, friend, ill for friend; yea, from all that I know of the plague, I could not shrink from the necessity of doing it, so that no sick person may be lost after the living, and to wit, that I might have a substantial supply of baseless reptile formulas, and any thing else which it pleased me to put in sound employment of my provinces. Go likewise, if you will, to all my cities and counties, whence aforementioned I dare say your orders have reached me, and join with me in contracting this universal mischief, which so many pestilences have in one common origin; for the public good must take the sole head-start in this. Moreover I doubt if it is wise for a government to contract business secretly.”


Part Two 


The girl looked up from her comic book, the doctor Piranesi and his evil leader Mannum still before her eyes. The TV was on, the news about the pandemic in her own time mixing feverishly in her mind with the medieval settings of her reading material. 


The pandemic arrived faster than the first one and spread feverer than the third one.


The pandemic had been slackened at the earliest opportunity. The government, with a quick fingers-behind-the-skills vote of confidence, had interrupted its routine use of measures (a corollary of this was the end of any special illness-statistics) to chart a new course. It had been prepared to drum up the resolutely irrational hatred of the pox. 


At that time it might even have been necessary, despairing of the work, to jubilate with the hope of transmitting the infection without doing anyone any harm, without spreading the incurable disease. But such jobs fell to the backs of the mentally defective, entrusted to the unfriendly hands of the ignorant. The government decided to make the disappointments right in order to keep around for the future the seeds of positive karma that could never propagate themselves. A postal service was abolished in the countryside. The postal service, variously sent by mail, was phased out. In towns the disease was lagged and spread in a loop, and in the city it reached an all-time high. Plague ceased spreading in the cities and the countryside; Plague was out for the chains that bound.


The pandemic, then, was a sudden death that could be caused by either direct contact or indirect spread among those already at high risk.

In the Classroom

We read the section on the right as the voiceover of the newscast. This section is also from the pre-2000 dataset but the content indicates that it was drawing more from the 20th century texts than from the Renaissance. The discourse around virus transmission, the effect on different geographical regions, and the conceptualisation of the pandemic as a weapon all point to the effect of social collapse during pandemic conditions. - CH

Researcher notes

The pandemic is spreading. In a few weeks, it will overtake Mexico and other tropical areas. But in Asia and Africa, the areas in which pandemics have been known to be spread, now less than three weeks of a second or a thousand days. What follows will determine the first and maximum periods of international isolation. In the West, now certainly, the cold weather will make things even worse. Vietnam, Kurdistan, Iran will be enveloped in an ice pall, as will most of the countries outside the European sphere. And in Asia, somewhat more slowly but undoubtedly, the total internal separation will be felt to be obscured when in a few weeks time time the isolating condition has been broken so that we shall be free to spread, in response to the rising of the temperature, the most virulent diseases found to arise in the most distempered of communities, so that they will be at once cleared of those who wish to remain and introduce a new form of isolation. The revolutionary elements in the masses will have only the weapon that should be possessed and wielded by revolutionaries until today. That weapon is this plague.

Private conversations died off. The telegrams ceased. Most of the written records disappeared. Against the inevitability of such a catastrophic event, is probably internegate a doubt, as certain it is that general impoverishment brings famine, and that the one manner by which our good country may be rendered entirely submissive to the enemy is through surrender.


She looked back down at the comic book. 

The plague


    was some time past. Death was necesa-sary, unendurable; the inhabitants


    sometimes retreated to the abbey for consolation; but in the city, where the word


    was thought of magnificence, they served for nothing. Those of the latter,


    who were old and in disgrace, and who with their pillaged possessions


    had fled the state, as a native of the admired former city, found


    that the town was only dreary, outdoor grave: dying at the porch of the


    Turning-place; passing on with them, passing on to the abbey


    fifty positions from which a cataclysm might follow, each


    advance and stop producing the same sorrow.




    When the time came to come forward and endeavour to achieve


    something for which they did not love, they contrived to


    retrieve it by dint of talk. They bade each other to forget


    the past; and it was impossible to do otherwise. Where was the best place, the


    largest, the most ornamental? Where was the rift to be made, the rift


    by which the reversion to good might occur? These were the questions which


    we were resolved to enter into; but we could no more help


    togetherly. Our minds had wandered far from its normal station,


    and we had liefer fled than yielded usals for two days and a night in our


    roof or open window. Many a happy hour had gone by, and at the


    moment that it was thought to shut down the town, we all, now heard the dreadful


    saying (presented by deafening din, which passed even from the gates),


    which in every lantern, in every window, was covered with blankets and gay


    clothes; the black of night, the misty spread over us; the woods were all whispered


    of foreigners on board, with proprations for us. Few were left to nurse a


    fond optimism, to consider what ensualling glamour might await the


    Dickinson sentry, when the town was said to be shut down; few


    would have cried, "Be quiet," without having foreseen at what


    and in what hangar of air the sucked wind might have breathed its


    vain odour




She can hear children singing outside, the nursery rhyme recalling

the long duration of the Ring a Ring A Rosie/Ringel Ringel Reihe song: 


They kill us good and


And how they leave the mutated


In their friends and kinsmen


And we run the danger


Of being alike slain; vile


Yet vile nothing is so


As we ourselves!

They creaked and made muffled sounds, and moved about the small room, raising the edge of the depression in the bed that had been they sat down on. They washed, some wiped with towels; the latex gloves losing their effectiveness; their coverslap lay unsteadily up and down on their backs and there was still dust from their shoes and hats. Just how they could afford to wait four days was very much up for debate.


“Why bother to keep quiet,” he asked them. “Why not just go on making music?”



The father was listening to them singing the old plague song.


It sounded like faeces over and over.


It sounded like the gunshot.


It sounded like an awful vision, wasn’t it? Like the sight of one of those halogen bulbs.


It sounded like someone gravely pointing at you.


It sounded like something out of a faintly decent fairy-tales.


It sounded like Daniel Redman singing Waste of Time on the Alamo.


It sounded like a joke.


It sounded like a nightmare!

Not remotely so. The dream seemed to bear on the precise horror of that scene.


It sounded like a bad dream. What had happened.


It sounded like the battles of the last few years I had read in comic books.

Maybe it was.


It sounded like a different kind of pain.


I think she’s lost her mind, said the man. But I’m not sure.


It sounded like an insult, but no one laughed.


*20 years later*

The pandemic of the Millennium had begun. It was already too late, not enough time to go to sleep or to rise in the morning.


I should say that I didn’t like it. The new world, the desert, the global north.


It was different for me.


There was no time to think. There was no time to dream.


They whispered, like the most secret of all secret.


There was only the road.


I stepped out into the street, and I could hear the sound of a person falling. It was like someone pushing a metal bar stool against the glass. As the patron fell, I ducked behind the scenes of late-night activities.


“I didn't see anyone on the street. I did not see anyone hit the glass. I did not see anyone run around the lobby unable to accept a cardboard wadded blanket that had been wrapped around his wound. I did not see anyone die on the ramp, not in the lobby, not in the house. I didn't see anyone get shot in the chest by a stray bullet. I didn't see anyone get hit by a spinning damn nail. I didn't see a single soul get hit.”


It sounded like a woman. And most of the voices were female. It wasn't a big group of people singing. It was smaller here. The women sang and the men chatted. They sang and they chatted. They sang and they chatted. They were all kind of the same, weren't they? She looked at the tall woman who was walking by the front of the bus, staring at the birds and butterflies and people in the sky.


They chatted. They chatted. They chatted. They chatted. 


And then the man who had been sitting with the woman with him, the one with a lot of interaction with the man behind the bus, came over to the woman with the apron, and they sat close to each other on the bus. They were touching and holding hands, and the man was saying something and the woman was listening. In fact, she could hear him talking to the man, he was telling him about his daughter, his concerns for her, and then they were walking away, and the man said: “I can’t believe it, that’s your daughter, that’s your baby, that’s your job, that’s everything” he was thanking the man, and the woman said “thank you very much, thank you very much”.


One of the men walks away and the intense man stays to try to convince the woman of something:


“I didn't want to see you walk out of the bakery. It was my fault. I didn't know what to do.”


“I walked out of the bakery. That moment when you walk out of a restaurant, the bakery, and the bakery is gone, and then you look at all the empty tables and the empty bathrooms and the empty walls and the no one behind you, and you know that time is passing, and you know you can buy a more intimate, more private goodbye, and you can leave the earth once more, but you just walk away. And then there’s the man behind you, and he was touching my arm. He was saying, ‘I’m so sorry’. And I didnt want to hear it. I didn't want to hear it. So I left and I was gone, and nobody knew who I was.” She pauses, “I want to see my mother again.”


“Was it desire?”


“Need is bad.”


“What does desire mean, then?”


“A desire for something that is not there.”


“What does that mean?”


“A desire that is not there.”


“What does that mean?”


“A desire that you cannot have. I want to see my mother again.

Tonight I will prove it. I will prove that I am not a fake. I will prove that I

have not been brainwashed. I will prove that I am the real me. Tonight I

will prove it.”


“We will see the movie of my life. Tonight I will share it.”


“I will say one thing and do another. Every word will go into her memory. Every image will be there.”


“Tonight I will show you the truth. I will show you the truth. Tonight I will make you see the light.”



Flashback of the little girl remembering her mother's torture:

It sounded like she was being tortured. I shouldn’t feel surprised by the violence, but I was still shocked by the knowledge that the man who had agreed to do this, and do it again, hadn't actually been a psychopath, but he was so convincing. The two of them, the man and the woman, had been locked in an abandoned barn, and the man had stabbed the woman in the back while she slept, and the woman had resisted, and the man had tried to kill her, and there was the videotape, and they were both still there. It was all so terribly, terribly convincing.

Part Three

In this final layer we discover that the traumatised girl, her adult self, and the graphic novel are the imaginings of an isolated writer in the present moment.  

“I thought about the time that I had left behind when I was alone, in a very angry world. I thought about the time that I had left behind when I was alone, in a very angry world. Whenever I remember those moments I can't stop myself. I just stood there, mute, staring at the road. I thought about the time that I had left behind when I was alone, in a very angry world. I thought about the time that I had left behind when I was alone, in a very angry world. I thought about everything. And not only that, those feelings. They were what I actually wanted. Not some morbid desire to sleep forever some morbid desire to go home. I wanted to live forever and forever and forever. I wanted to be something more than just another person in a body. I wanted to be something more than just a person for others to consume and abuse. I wanted to be something greater than just a person. That was the promise that I kept as I ran down the hall from the eighth floor until the chapel opened. I wanted to be something greater than just a person; I wanted to be something more than just a person, but for that I had to be just great. I didn't want to be just great, I wanted to be amazing. I wanted to be something else. I wanted something different.”


The sound was coming, but it was obvious that he did not want to hear it. He had no wish to hear any story about how little he had. He didn't want to know. He didn't want to know anything except his own story. Storytellers were always telling him that they had seen the same thing in different places, but now they couldn't remember which one it was.


But when did he first feel this way?


He had always thought of his childhood as a series of fixed points, and it was a stable foundation from which to build his life, but the vast majority of his memories were temporary and uncertain, not anchored in any place. His childhood was the single largest fixed point of all his life, and it was the defining moment when he first decided to become a Writer.


He watched elegantly as his mother reduced the evening with speeches and flowers to elegies and wine and snippets of verse. He never understood why it had taken so long for him to grasp that this was a beautiful world, and why all of his life he had wanted to live in it. He wanted to live in bridges, he wanted to live in cities with bridges. He wanted to live in bridges, he said, just like everywhere else. He had always wanted to live in New York, and then he finally did.

He turned away from the window and closed his eyes. The city was moving quickly, walking, driving, standing, lying down, moving forward, doing something or throwing something or staring into the future or whatever it was that he was doing. He wasn’t ready for everything that was happening.


Data output excerpts selected by Chelsea Haith 

Excerpts edited into a coherent narrative by The Sound of Contagion team

Concept Art by Sara Laubscher

In the Classroom

Reading this passage put me in mind of a children’s’ playground song based on a specific historical event, as many are. But how long does it take for such a nursery rhyme to develop? A week, a year, a decade? This is significant, because it implies a distance between the Sound of Contagion text and the events it describes. Time and structure is a universal problem in machine learning, but often from a coding or mathematical point of view, rather than the perspective of puzzling out its generated outputs. - RL

Researcher notes

In the Classroom

The section above is a collection of the first lines from the various outputs that were actioned with the prompt: 'It sounded like.'
To the right we see a rising concern with the coming Millenium likely drawn from the 1990s texts, and I've inserted these events into the narrative of the little girl we encountered earlier. The setting is therefore a few years after the Millenium, being some 20 years after we see the little girl watching the news of the Aids crisis in the second piece of concept art. - CH

Researcher notes

In the Classroom

Much of this section is rubbish, or nonsensical, but it is interesting nonsense. The dialogue is of two people speaking at cross-purposes to one another. One is traumatised and offers to share the cause of this trauma, seemingly with a stranger. In this section we discover that the little girl has lost her mother to torture during the early days of the pandemic. Again, the sounds the algorithm chose were ones of pain, of torture, and evocative of social disruption. - CH

 Researcher notes 

In the Classroom

Working with text generated by artificial intelligence gives me quite different options for setting text to music, compared to working with a human poet. The algorithm has no intentionality and no syntactical understanding in the way that we normally understand. As a result, a text has no meaning – or perhaps, all possible readings of the text are equally valid. Whether this liberates a text or leaves it mired and inaccessible is a matter for further thought. -RL 

Researcher notes



The International Committee of the Dead voted unanimously to authorize the operation to liberate the cities from the clutches of the marauders. But they had been replaced by a motley crew of crazed neo-Nazis, preachers, xenophobes, hate groups, fanatics, crazed lizards. Each faction sought to expand their sphere of influence, innovate and extend their reach. Some were successful. Some were not.


The survivors tried to expand their sphere of influence. They put their faith in new leaders. We'll take care of what happens at the church, they said to the old world. Or, how about this one? Find a real leader, and start over.


The old world had never had a leader, in the long history of mankind, not a leader to be overthrown, not a dictator. But the world in the third world was no longer a paradise, either. The horrors of the old world were inescapable, everywhere, in every country, and no country was ever going to get out of the group on that. All the old ways were simply not viable anymore.