Zoë Hitzig is Generative and Intelligent. Is She Artificial?

Much like a large language model, the Zoë Hitzig available by Google search is so prolifically published that she seems capable of writing something about anything — from poetry to economics to philosophy — almost instantaneously.


{shortcode-be29865d8a9c7908fa05930b7f2d42574eaa573c} arrive at my interview with Zoë K. Hitzig ’15 prepared to audition for the role of “person capable of thinking anything worthy of being processed by Hitzig’s incomprehensibly large brain.”

Much like a large language model, the Hitzig available by Google search is so prolifically published that she seems capable of writing something about anything, almost instantaneously. Her poetry has been published in the likes of the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Paris Review, and the Harvard Advocate, and she also serves as the poetry editor of the Drift. “Not Us Now,” her techno-dystopic, second collection of poems set to be released in June, was awarded the final Changes Book Prize judged by the late Louise Glück.

I also learned from her personal website that Hitzig, a former Crimson Arts editor, happens to be a professional economist with special interest in privacy and algorithms. Her research papers bear titles like “Opaque Mechanisms” and “Contextual Confidence and Generative AI” that are as poetic as they are cryptic. Hitzig, who completed her economics Ph.D. at Harvard in 2023, is a Junior Fellow with the Harvard Society of Fellows, which supports the studies of 36 early-career academics. Fellows, the Society’s website reads, “should be of the highest calibre of intellectual achievement.”

And so, I knock on the door of the part shed, part whimsical cottage owned by the Society. I am underread in the many forms of Hitzig’s work and already overly impressed.

The Hitzig who greets me at the door does not fit my formula for frigid academic. She’s just chill in a regular way. Before I know it, I have a blackcurrant tea in my hands, Hitzig is regaling me with her battle against an eight-person athlete blocking group for the Quincy Belltower Suite, and I am taking in the cut-out photo of a ripped Carmy from “The Bear” above the room’s printer.

With a sprinkle of vocal fry and a smattering of cool rings, Hitzig’s presence makes the word “vibe” almost reenter my vocabulary before I — so literary, I am — boot it for the cliche. And Hitzig is perceptive to cliche.

“I have started to become a little bit annoyed about people being shocked that I do these two things,” Hitzig says when asked if she feels that economics and poetry occupy separate sides of her brain. “That’s just not that different from anyone else. Everyone’s code switching all the time. Everyone has many talents.”

“There’s this guy in the Society of Fellows who’s a math professor who was in the NFL. I’m like, okay, now we’re talking,” she adds.

Hitzig’s poetry and economics often explore similar themes. In her economics, Hitzig worries “that people don’t fully have the tools to understand what’s happening in the information sphere and how it has massive effects on them.” For example, in a 2020 paper, she analyzed Boston’s school choice algorithms to argue that normative choices are embedded into algorithms employed by policymakers and the way the public interacts with them. In her poetry, especially “Not Us Now,” Hitzig is also concerned about algorithms, imagining a future where they dictate human narratives to the highest degree.

But when I ask her how her interest in privacy influences both her economics research and her poetry — if the cryptic and even withholding nature of poetry is itself an expression of privacy — she buffers momentarily.

“I’d never thought about it that way,” she says. “But I do think that — this is a leap — yeah, well, you’re very smart.”

Well, shit. Now I’m a pseudointellectual tryhard. But for as much as Hitzig prefaces that her brain hasn’t woken up yet, her responses to my questions — and her understanding of her form — seem consistently calculated.

“I don’t necessarily see it as hiding meaning. I don’t think that what poets are doing is saying, like, ‘Oh, I have this precisely articulated feeling, but I don’t want to say it so clearly, so I’m going to give you a poem,’” she says. “What poetry is, is, ‘I have this feeling that’s so hard to describe, but it’s real.’”

The problem for the poet, however, is to translate the hard-to-speak parts of inner life to those who stand outside it. At least on the surface, Hitzig’s work can seem inaccessible, even disinterested in relating the inner privacy of its language to an outer audience.

The publisher’s description of “Not Us Now,” for example, calls it “vertiginous,” but the description itself only gave me vertigo from an assortment of buzzwords so frenzied that I wondered if they were detailing a collection of poems or a fun-house mirror impression of the humanities.

“Hitzig delivers an astonishing act of ventriloquy in reverse” voiced not by “a singular, lyric ‘I’” but “a consciousness that seems to have amassed itself out of the detritus of human life,” the description reads.

Hitzig tries to decode her vision for me in our conversation. She likes to think about her new collection as “reporting the results of an imagined excavation” of “a few little artifacts from an imagined world that looks like our world, but it’s not quite our world.”

“I want it to feel like someone just found it,” Hitzig says.

The “scraps” that compose the collection are not told from Hitzig’s voice — she didn’t even want her name to appear on the front cover for that reason — but from the perspective of algorithms.

The “Greedy Algorithm” seems to binarily blame its human creators for its existence — “Is this or is this not/what you tasked me with” — while “Zero-Regret Algorithm” marches on, either helpless to the consequences of its programming or uncaring – “full of rage and rope I am not us yet but/soon there will be no place left to go.” The central poem of the collection, also called “Not Us Now,” is a pages-long explication of the apocalypse told through the perspective of variables p̄, ŝ, z*, and more.

Like the most advanced algorithms, Hitzig’s style can feel encrypted and obfuscated. This is a feature and not a bug.

“There is a kind of encryption that is happening in the poem. But I don’t think that it’s an encryption that’s aiming to hide something that exists. It’s an encryption that’s making something new possible,” she says.

Academia itself speaks in self-encrypted language. Hitzig’s background is in economic theory, which she likens to “a little tiny toy sandbox,” a field that is both “very constrained” by its language and enabled by it. But whether the discipline of economics is invested in improving the reality outside the sandbox — or if the sandbox is forever assimilating the conditions of people’s lives as data to power publications — is not a question Hitzig answers.

Across mediums, Hitzig is primarily interested in new possibilities. At the risk of sounding like “one of my undergrads,” she divulges her classically Gen Z niche microinterest: Allende’s experimentation with a cybernetic economy as a possible response to the socialist calculation problem. Socially, she wants to surround herself with “people who have a positive vision and a commitment to experimentation that can lead to better ways of organizing ourselves.”

Underneath prose that can sometimes feel password-protected, the core of Hitzig’s work is hopeful experimentation for our collective future.

“I do prefer things that have a positive vision,” Hitzig says about “Not Us Now,” rejecting my characterization of it as simply dystopian.

“I think it can be too easy to be dystopian,” she adds, explaining that she hopes that even if readers find the poems grim, it will make them realize everything we have to lose — “beauty and hope and play.”

— Magazine writer Olivia G. Pasquerella can be reached at olivia.pasquerella@thecrimson.com. Follow them on Twitter @pasqapasqa.