Gibson's self-destructing poem Agrippa: screen-movie

In 1992, William Gibson released "Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)", a haunting poem about loss and memory that came on a floppy disc that erased itself as you played it. Here's a screen-capture of the Agrippa poem being read out inside a Mac classic emulator. There were other editions, even more esoteric, that you can read about on Wikipedia; as lovely a literary piece as this is, it was an even lovelier artifact.

A “Run” of William Gibson’s “Agrippa” Poem from a Copy of Original 1992 Agrippa Diskette, Wikipedia on Agrippa (via Beyond the Beyond)


  1. that came on a floppy disc that erased itself as you played it.

    So this was the original DRM right?

    Don’t they know that you’re not supposed to copy that floppy?

    In a way it’s cool to see this near legendary artifact, or the other hand, the whole point of this piece was planned obsolesence so a drive image copy devalues it a bit in my eyes.

    On the third hand (having three hands proves that I’m a mutant) I really DO WANT a copy, and have wanted this ever since I read about it’s existence.

  2. This is very cool, an “Agrippa” museum.

    Reading “Agrippa” is like stepping into a stream: it’s never the same poem twice, it never seems to be about the same thing it was last time I read it.

    I’ve seen it in many forms online and in print, and examined the huge Ashbaugh album-book, which I recall (incorrectly, I think) as being printed on photosensitive paper that deteriorated when it was viewed. This is the first time I’ve read it in the destructo-disk version, and it was, as always, an experience like to cupping mercury in my hands.

  3. @Gunn, I dearly hope you’ve never actually experienced cupping mercury in your hands. Aside from that, I appreciate the sentiment you so nicely described.

  4. I still remember this idea; it was far ahead of its time.

    Think of all the YouTube videos or songs that could have served humanity so much better if they had deleted themselves right after you heard them.

  5. We were slashdotted as well as boinged; the server should be back up soon. When it is, follow Cory’s original link.

  6. When you said “played”, I thought of audio. bummer, the letters are too small for my eyes, I’ll check it later. But as an idea… sure it was ahead of its time, and probably is as “ephemerous” as it can be. Like a smoke sculpture.

  7. This poem is beautiful, and painful, and has inspired me in more ways than I could describe.

    Seeing this video both warms and breaks my heart.

  8. Now don’t get the **AA get wind of this idea. They would love to sell you single use media.
    I can already imagine the propaganda for that one:

    “You wouldn’t eat an ice cream twice…”

  9. @8 – you may have better luck with the high quality .mov available on the site. I had the same issue but the higher quality video is perfect.

  10. I had a funny experience in library school with this work. My professor was describing the self-destructing nature of the program and the “vanishing ink” edition and you could see my classmates getting more and more horrified by the idea of a book that, as one of them put it, “dies”.

    My professor’s retort was lovely. “Every books dies, but this one confronts the grim reaper head on.”

    Beyond the wonderful format, it’s quite a beautiful poem.

  11. @SETHUM, I am old enough that I have indeed cupped small amounts of mercury in my hand. It used to be something that children were allowed to do, in order to encourage them to enjoy science. This may explain wacko boomers a lot better than the too-many-street-drugs theory.

    Held in the hand, mercury is a shiny ball of wondrous liquid that moves around quickly, almost of its own will, breaking into smaller droplets and leaving tiny mirror-balls of itself in the friction ridges of your palm or fingertips. You can make these balls come together and breakup, apparently without leaving their substance behind on your hand. If you have a magnifying glass, however, you might see tiny balls of shiny mercury left behind. Don’t inhale them.

    Reading “Agrippa” will not cause permanent neurological damage, but it is likely to cut a few new neural pathways.

  12. …Ah, Agrippa. I fondly remember being one of those who first advised the BBS world – WWIVnet, in this case – on how to use a simple sector editor to restore that file after it was simply erased by changing the first letter in Agrippa’s DOS file name to a question mark. Changing the ? back to an “A” restored the file for another play.

    …Not long after that, someone ripped the EXE – it might have been a COM file, it’s been so damn long – and posted the prose all over the place. The justification for what some decried as a wanton act of piracy – duh! – was that not only had Gibson offended everyone by making his work self-destruct after people had paid for it, but it wasn’t that good a hack job to begin with. 16 years later, I have to agree with that last bit. It wasn’t that good of a laugh in the mechanism at all.

    …On a side note, what I’ve always wondered was whether or not anyone scanned the inside cover that also photoreactively self-destructed, and if any unopeneed copies are still intact after all those years.

  13. @OM (#17):

    I’m one of the folks responsible for the forensics and emulation. There’s a detailed account of the “hack” explaining exactly how the poem (not prose) got posted all of the internet here:

    It didn’t involve “ripping” any of the executables. The business about the file name is also incorrect (it didn’t work that way, and you can experiment for yourself using the disk image we provide).

    Also, the “photoreactive self-destruction” never really worked out. It was planned for the project but never came off. MGK

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