(Un)natural Language Generation

On the heels of Grimes setting off a wave of debate with regard to her “we’re in the end of art, human art” prophecy in terms of how AI will take over music, it leads one to reckon that, of all the arts most likely to take the severest blow, it would be none other than writing (rarely considered an art at all in the present unless it comes as a script for a Golden Globe-nominated TV series). In addition to Google using it for its search engine and email compositions, major journalistic outposts like The Washington Post and The New York Times are also already employing the artificial intelligence known as natural language generation (a very unnatural phrase usually abbreviated to NLG) for a quick turnaround on articles and blurb-like news items. Thus, it’s only a matter of years before the pervasiveness of the technology ominously slithers toward the realm of literature, which would mean good news for major publishers and bad news for the perpetually struggling writer still naively seeking to toil away at making great art.

In the twenty-first century, “great art” has taken on a new definition, alas. And it’s one that means profitability for the company (formerly known as a patron willing to expend money without expecting much in return in order to see an artist’s growth and progress) and a willingness to bend over to what genre, style and tone that will entail for the writer to “generate.” Only now, that pesky middle man called the writer will soon no longer really be necessary. Considering how low the pay is for most creative writing jobs to begin with, corporations and small businesses alike have grown tired of hearing about how their writers “deserve” higher pay (a.k.a. more than two pennies a word) that correlates to the ratio of time it takes to create something that isn’t, well, a pile of shite. Turns out, that’s all companies and the “readers” they pander to really want. Which, incidentally, makes the rich in the guise of the corporation the greatest enemy of the artist where once, many centuries ago (mainly in Italy), that class was his or her greatest ally. Again, where have all the patrons expecting no return on their investment gone?

When it comes to “reaching quotas” in industries that require massive amounts of article and copywriting, the NLG phenomenon is destined to take a greater hold (much to the dismay, in the latter arena’s case, of Don Draper and Peggy Olson). Justifying use of the technology for the sake of “unburdening” writers who can’t meet the same demands as a machine (though that machine comparison didn’t seem to be a problem when humans were being used as slaves to build the pyramids), NLG is a natural fit in the “creative” office setting as a jumping off point.

But it won’t be long until it topples the once singular professions of novelist, screenwriter and playwright. Coincidentally, even The Bard himself has fallen prey to exposure for not being superhuman in his playwriting abilities, with “the algorithm” of AI determining that Shakespeare enlisted a little help to finish some of his work. Because, yes, to deliver the level of quantity (intermixed with occasional quality) most are seeking, a man has to be either a machine or seek aid from one–though, in Ryan Murphy’s superhuman case, cocaine might be the more likely aid.

The boon this would serve for publishing companies that comprise the Big Five cannot be ignored. For these are all owned by parent corporations seeking to figure out how to resuscitate an enthusiasm for the written word before it gets adapted to a screen by yet another company owned by the parent corporation. Books that serve as installments in a series, such as Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey, have proven to be the best moneymaking examples for publishing houses that only continue to face a fledgling market when it comes to drumming up interest in genuinely literary novels. That it’s much easier to replicate the “formula” of series-centric books like the aforementioned only renders NLG to be all the more appealing to the suits that want to churn out as many profitable (that is to say, franchisable) “works” as possible.

With reference to that word, work, when it comes to writing (despite writers still being clichely and discriminatorily viewed as over glorified deadbeats), the entire crux of a literary piece, the heart, the soul–the proverbial blood, sweat and tears–that goes into a single page of writing (with many scribes taking longer than a machine ever possibly could thanks to the curse of daze, distraction and daydreaming) will vanish with the omnipresence of NLG. And as we know it, so will writing itself. At least in its “analog” format. For why teach anyone the skill when there’s AI around to do it for them? Even “tools” like the accursed Grammarly positioned as a way for writers to “improve themselves” is an overt lie. Because if there is no real work involved in writing when a “writer” has a number of “facilitating” (i.e. do it for you) devices, how can it really be called writing? If anything, it can fit under the same category of drone work in an office that requires inputting data in a spreadsheet. Some would argue that this is a narrow view, that not embracing the “tools” is being against progress that other writers before us would have reveled in (but get real, can one really see anybody enjoying this except Truman Capote?). Yet it’s not as though we’re talking about a motherfucking thesaurus. These programs aren’t “auxiliary,” but intended to extract the large bulk of any authentic human touch or voice involved in what great literature has always evoked.

This is something that has been evolving ever since the pen and paper was dispensed with. Although even the typewriter, when it was still in its heyday, had the tactility, the honesty of true and grueling work (slamming those keys with the same force and fervor that the words poured out of one’s brain). There’s no denying that the subsequent reign of laptops did make things easier for writers (and certainly much less terrifying for the purposes of saving one’s documents to something that wasn’t an oh so breakable floppy disk). And even software formatting programs like FinalDraft for the screenwriting set. However, the next step in evolution for the medium and its “amelioration” for getting ideas onto a page more rapidly doesn’t seem to bode well for originality and depth, two qualities that have already long since dropped off the pages of most novels.

Of course, it’s all peddled under the deception of making our lives better by making them more “streamlined.” It doesn’t feel that way when the overt reason behind NLG stems from just another way in which the writer–the artist–is damned to never be paid for anything they do. Why would they when AI can do it faster and, evidently, more humanly?

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