Agrippa the book contains a diskette buried in a hollowed-out cavity. When played in a 1992-era Mac computer, the diskette scrolls a 305-line poem by William Gibson unstoppably up the screen once, then performs an encryption-like effect on it that makes it “disappear” for all but the most determined hacker.
Gibson’s text is a trans-generational memory poem about his father’s and his own youth—the father captured by a camera and a 1920 Kodak “Agrippa” brand photo album; the son reflecting upon the interface for a vanished world thus provided by the “mechanism.” Disappearance is a central theme (“Inside the cover he inscribed something in soft graphite / Now lost”). But the poem reimagines blurry human disappearance as an effect of sharp, decisive, binary transitions in an existential “the mechanism” (“The shutter falls / Forever / Dividing that from this”). Beyond elegy, the mechanism—which abides only in the moment, and so “forever”—also knows how to laugh (“tonight red lanterns are battered, / laughing, / in the mechanism”).
Currently, the Agrippa Files does not have permission to reproduce the full text of the poem. Many wild copies of the text exist on the Internet. The official copy is on William Gibson’s Web site.
In July 2012, Quinn DuPont—at the Information Science department at University of Toronto—ran a “Cracking the Agrippa Code” contest offering hackers “every William Gibson book ever published (except Agrippa)” for solving the mystery of how the code on Agrippa’sdisk actually worked to scroll Gibson’s poem up the screen and then, famously, “encrypt” it forever. The contest produced surprising discoveries.
“Cracking the Agrippa Code” Contest
— Archival Copies (original posts here) CC BY-NC 3.0 —
Item #D51. Video capture of a “run” of William Gibson’s “Agrippa” poem made from playing a disk-image (bit-level) copy of original 1992 Agrippa diskette.
Source: original 1992 Agrippa3.5″ diskette, 1.4 Mb, loaned by collector Allan Chasanoff.
Process: » Disk image (bit-level copy) made using the “dd” copy process. (See Item #D50 on this site: downloadable disk-image file.) » Run of the disk-image copy on a computer using Mini vMac emulator with System 7 book disk (to emulate the functions of the original 1992 Mac platform for which the software on the diskette was created). » Video capture of the resulting run of the poem.
Editor’s Note: The following was contributed on July 17, 2011, by Freek Wiedijk, a mathematician and Assistant Professor of Computing and Information Sciences at Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
I have been a long time fan of William Gibson, and was very excited about Agrippa when it appeared, long ago. At the time I was a Mac hacker. However, as I did not have access to the disk in the Agrippa art-book, I could not play with that. Of course I dutifully downloaded, read and stored the “Agrippa” poem once it was “hacked”, but that was it. (It took a long time before I had an idea what the book itself looked like, though.)
So recently I discovered The Agrippa Files site, and downloaded both the disk image and the movie of the Agrippa disk running in emulation.
So then I wondered whether I could have gotten the text of the poem out of that disk myself (without retyping it, just by hacking.) Of course my “classic Mac” skills are very rusty by now, but I still wanted to try. And I indeed did manage to “hack” Agrippa relatively easily, in a crude but effective way.
Item #D48. Bootleg Video of Live Run of the Diskette Containing William Gibson’s “Agrippa” at the Americas Society, New York City (9 Dec. 1992).
This video, approximately one hour long, was made surreptiously by “Templar,” the pseudonym of one member of a graduate-student team known as “Templar, Rosehammer, and Pseudophred” from New York University’s Interactive Television Program. The team had been recruited to shoot the screen of a laptop computer used by Kevin Begos, Jr. (the publisher of Agrippa) for the public unveiling of Agrippa at the Americas Society, New York City, on December 9, 1992 (during the so-called “Transmission” event). Their sanctioned mission was to project on a large screen the laptop’s image of a complete, live “run” of William Gibson’s poem (running from Agrippa’s diskette). Unbeknownst to the event’s organizers, however, Templar had slotted a blank video cassette into the camera used for the live feed. The resulting recording is presented here from a copy of the original videotape (the original has not been found) recovered in 2007 by “Rosehammer” from a ¾ video tape cartridge (in NTSC format) labeled “AGRIPPA—[Templar’s] VIEW.” Highlights of the recording include:
Interview of Kevin Begos, Jr. by Karen Benfield, producer for the Wall Street Journal Television Report (approx. 20 minutes).
The “run” of Gibson’s poem scrolling up the screen of Begos’s laptop, accompanied by a synchronized audio recording of comedian Penn Jilette reading the text (approx. 20 minutes).
Question and answer period with Begos, cut off unexpectedly when someone approached Templar and caused him to stop recording to prevent discovery.
For detailed discussion of this video and related events, see on this site Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s “No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for Agrippa“ (as well as the earlier excerpt from his book, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (MIT Press, 2008). Of related interest: Re:Agrippa, an experimental video composition made by Rosehammer and Templar in 1993 that samples and remixes selected footage from the 1992 bootleg video, and adds experimental-video-style montage, sound, and titling effects.
Note: The Agrippa Files had originally wanted to present this video on YouTube because it is the most iconic of the cyberspace, viral video channels now fulfilling the prophecy of Templar, Rosehammer, and Pseudophred’s “hack” of the Americas Society event on December 9, 1992, which led the next day to the viral, plain-text release of Gibson’s poem on the internet. But due to the length of the video, which exceeds YouTube’s constraints, Google Video was chosen.
Created by the Transcriptions Project, UC Santa Barbara