Agrippa»The Poem

Agrippa, pp. 62-63Agrippa 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.

Cracking the Agrippa Code: How the Disk Worked (Discoveries From the “Cracking the Agrippa Code” Contest in 2012)

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’s disk 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

See also Quinn DuPont, “Cracking the Agrippa Code: Cryptography for the Digital Humanities,” Scholarly and Research Communication 4.3 (2013): 1 – 8.

Context, Highlights, and Commentary by Alan Liu arrow-right (more…)

The Beginning of “Agrippa” the Poem

I hesitated
before untying the bow
that bound this book together.

A black book:
Order Extra Leaves By Letter and Name

A Kodak album of time-burned
black construction paper

The string he tied
Has been unravelled by years
and the dry weather of trunks
Like a lady’s shoestring from the First World War
Its metal ferrules eaten by oxygen
Until they resemble cigarette-ash

Inside the cover he inscribed something in soft graphite
Now lost
Then his name
W.F. Gibson Jr.
and something, comma,

Then he glued his Kodak prints down
And wrote under them
In chalk-like white pencil:
“Papa’s saw mill, Aug. 1919.”

. . . . . . . . . . . .

A “Run” of William Gibson’s “Agrippa” Poem from a Copy of Original 1992 Agrippa Diskette

Rapid access: YouTube
Higher-quality: QuickTime video

20 minutes, 13 seconds.
Agrippa label at start of poem's run


Agrippa “label” at start of poem’s run
Beginning of poem as it scrolls up screen


“I hesitated…”
(Beginning of poem as it scrolls up screen)
The poem continues


“The mechanism…”
(the poem continues)
The poem ends


“laughing, in the mechanism” (the poem ends)
Encrypted text appearing after end of poem
Encrypted text appearing after end of poem
Desktop of Mini vMac emulator

Desktop of Mini vMac emulator with System 7 used to run the poem
Folder on Mini vMac emulator

Folder on Mini vMac emulator with System 7 used to run the poem
Rapid access: YouTube
Higher-quality: QuickTime video

20 minutes, 13 seconds.
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 Agrippa 3.5″ 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.

More info: Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, with Doug Reside and Alan Liu, “No Round Trip: Two New Primary Sources for Agrippa.”

     Credits for the “Run”
  • Allan Chassanof (for loan of original diskette)
  • Kevin Begos, Jr.
  • Matthew G. Kirschenbaum and Doug Reside, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities
  • Alan Liu
  • Robert Maxwell, Digital Forensics Lab and Office of Information Technology, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Bini Tecle and Allan Rough, University of Maryland, College Park.
  • Permissions to copy, run, and reproduce the diskette online received from: Kevin Begos, Jr., Allan Chasanoff, and William Gibson.

Original Text of Gibson’s “Agrippa” Poem Extracted From Computer Memory During a Run of the Disk

Download diff file showing differences between poem extracted from disk and Web version on Gibson's site Also download agrippa.diff
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.

I did this in three steps: (more…)

Bootleg Video of “Transmission” Event at the Americas Society, With Live Run of the Diskette Containing William Gibson’s “Agrippa” (9 December 1992)

Rapid access: YouTube
Higher-quality: .mp4

60 min.
Karen Benfield interviewing Kevin Begos, Jr.

Karen Benfield interviewing Kevin Begos, Jr.
Laptop used for presentation

Laptop used for presentation
Laptop and projection screen

Laptop and projection screen
Laptop screen open to folder with Agrippa file

Laptop screen open to folder with Agrippa file
Agrippa title page projected from running the diskette

Agrippa title page projected from running the diskette

Agrippa label projected from running the diskette
Go to bootleg video

Based on DVD-format VOB files created from the video tape. 60 min.

Rapid access: YouTube
Higher-quality: .mp4

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.