The dawn of the omnistar

From The Economist:

Computers have spent decades disrupting humdrum jobs. Now artificial intelligence (ai) is coming for the most glamorous ones. Hollywood has been at a standstill for half the year, until studios agreed on November 8th to offer striking stars protection from robotic rivals. Living artists were nudged down this week’s music charts by a dead Beatle, resurrected by ai. Actors like Scarlett Johansson and authors like John Grisham are suing tech firms over the unauthorised use of their image and words.

Stars may worry that ai is stealing their work and giving less talented performers the skills to snatch their audience. In fact, the famous folk complaining the loudest about the new technology are the ones who stand to benefit the most. Far from diluting star power, ai will make the biggest celebrities bigger than ever, by allowing them to be in all markets, in all formats, at all times. Put your hands together—or insert your earplugs if you prefer—for the rise of the omnistar.

. . . .

This is not the first time that technology has changed the rules of the fame game. People began to talk of stars in the 18th century, after the spread of reading made it possible to be truly famous within your lifetime. Film and radio initially seemed like a threat to stars, who worried that their live performances would be devalued. In fact, those technologies ushered in the era of the superstar, a term that caught on in the 1920s. A similar panic greeted the invention of television (and led to the last big Hollywood strike, in 1960). But again, the new tech made the famous even more so, bringing them into every living room. By the 1960s people were talking of megastars.

As ai-generated content floods into the entertainment business, the hardworking folk of Malibu are worrying once more that their fame will be diluted—and again, the outcome is likely to be the opposite. One of the paradoxes of the internet age is that, even as uploads to YouTube, TikTok and the like have created a vast “long tail” of user-made content, the biggest hits by the biggest artists have become even bigger. The number of musicians earning over $1,000 a year in royalties on Spotify has more than doubled in the past six years, but the number earning over $10m a year has quintupled. Even as niche content thrives—sea shanties, whistling and all kinds of eccentricities—Taylor Swift is marching through the most lucrative concert tour in history. It is the mid-ranking artists who have suffered.

Similar patterns hold across entertainment. The number of feature films released each year has doubled in the past two decades, but the biggest blockbusters have simultaneously doubled their share of the total box office. A tide of self-published books has not eroded the sales of star writers. In a sea of choice audiences rely more on recommendations, both algorithmic and human, which funnel them towards the most popular content. ai promises even more choice, and thus even higher search costs for audiences, who will continue to gravitate to the handful of stars at the top.

ai will give these megastars the ability to be truly omnipresent for their fans. ai-powered dubbing is already allowing actors and podcasters to speak to foreign audiences instantly and in their own voice. It will soon be standard for video to be edited so that their lips match the new language, too. In-demand actors may get more work because ai removes the perennial Hollywood problem of crowded schedules, allowing stars to perform alongside each other while not being together at all. Digital Botox will increase actors’ shelf-life and even enable them to perform posthumously. Disney has acquired the rights to the voice of James Earl Jones, 92, so that Darth Vader can scare children for generations to come.

Everything, everywhere, all at once

Stars will also be able to perform for fans in formats that are only beginning to emerge. The abba avatars that sell out a London arena seven times a week, and the celebrity-voiced chatbots recently launched by Meta, are just a taste of the ways in which the biggest stars will be able to satisfy—and monetise—their fans.

These opportunities come with strings attached. Artists are right to worry about copyright, which must be protected if ai is not to become a legalised form of piracy. Past technologies were no different: the printing press led to the first copyright laws in the 18th century; royalty payments were rejigged in the 1960s to compensate big-screen actors whose work was shown on tv; the musical free-for-all unleashed by companies like Napster at the turn of the century eventually gave way to deals between streamers and record companies. Content creators have legitimate questions about permission and payment (we declare an interest here). Until those are answered, ai will be a legal Wild West.

The bigger question is how the age of the omnistar will suit audiences. The risk is boredom. ai is brilliant at remixing and regurgitating old material, but less good at generating the pulse-racing, spine-tingling stuff that is, for now, a human speciality. ai output may nonetheless appeal to film studios, record labels and other creative middlemen, who prefer to minimise risk by sticking to tried-and-tested ideas. Hollywood already favours franchises over new work: witness the rash of sequels and reboots at the box office. ai will let studios apply the same principle to actors. A de-aged Luke Skywalker stars in Disney’s latest “Star Wars” spin-off. At present, audiences are wowed by such trickery. They may grow tired of it long before “Fast and Furious 94”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Dead Links

From Public Books:

On May 8, 2023, a Twitter user expressed sadness over the loss of a dead loved one’s Twitter account: “My sister died 10 years ago, and her Twitter hasn’t been touched since then. It’s now gone because of Elon Musk’s newest farce of a policy. Fuck you @elonmusk, your nonsense has taken away a monument to my sister’s mark on this earth.”

Soon after Twitter’s new deletion policy took hold, Google made an announcement of its own. A May 16, 2023, blog post stated that Google would start deleting inactive personal accounts: “if a Google Account has not been used or signed into for at least 2 years, we may delete the account and its contents.” Much like Twitter, Google blamed security issues as the company’s main concern. (Long-inactive accounts are less likely than regularly accessed ones to have two-factor authentication and may become compromised, spewing spam or other unpleasant content out into the world.) However, this policy change invalidates Google’s earlier promise to store your data forever for free. For example, Google Photos claimed in 2015:

Google Photos gives you a single, private place to keep a lifetime of memories, and access them from any device. They’re automatically backed up and synced, so you can have peace of mind that your photos are safe, available across all your devices.

And when we say a lifetime of memories, we really mean it. With Google Photos, you can now backup and store unlimited, high-quality photos and videos, for free.

Google Photos ended its free unlimited storage in 2021.

Tech titans gained power and wealth from the accumulation of data, but that doesn’t mean they are equipped to be long-term stewards of personal and collective memories. Even the longest-lived social media platforms have undergone tremendous changes, and some, like Twitter (now X), teeter on the precipice of oblivion. And many companies, it seems, would rather eschew their responsibilities as digital caregivers. They gobbled up massive amounts of user data for model building and to attract advertisers, and they can just as easily decide to free themselves of their obligations to preserve such data.

For ordinary users, personal data may seem permanent, something that can follow them across the life cycle. Yet such permanence doesn’t always align with corporate interests in and interpretations of data. Today, Big Tech companies are no longer willing to maintain data in perpetuity. We are perhaps reaching the limits of what the cloud can afford.

Tech companies, whether fledgling digital estate-planning startups or massive multinational corporations, are ill equipped to broker the intergenerational transfer of digital remains because of their short attention spans. Moreover, corporations often propose the deactivation or deletion of dormant accounts to avoid liability for any security issues that might arise from keeping them online. Twitter has repeatedly planned to deactivate such accounts, but up until this latest policy shift, user pushback and press attention prevented it from becoming a reality. Under Elon Musk’s chaotic ownership, this time the plan was carried out, at least in part. One petty billionaire had the power to delete long-standing memorials to the dead. Such deletions can also carry their own political implications, such as freeing up handles for right-wing politicians, one possible incentive for Musk’s decision, although simultaneously upsetting the loved ones of dead users.

Despite Big Tech’s tendency to ignore the dead, however, death seems to haunt data infrastructures. In my book, Death Glitch: How Techno-Solutionism Fails Us in This Life and Beyond, I discuss the thorny problem of maintaining the data of the dead, which requires enacting care both at scale and over time.

Here I explore the politics and ethics of endless posthumous data storage, especially at a time when the climate impact of the proverbial cloud is a pressing concern amid the rise of generative AI and other high-energy workloads.

Over the decades, platforms have grappled with the problem of retaining and caring for the data of the dead. Digital remains are complex inheritances, because they depend on the longevity and commercial viability of corporate platforms and proprietary systems. Consider how the remains of the dead might well encompass everything from email, blog, and social media accounts to the ambient forms of metadata that track individuals and their networks. All this—when users die or platform infrastructures break down—becomes digital remains.

Commercial platforms can provide the scaffolding for sacred communion with the dead. But such relationships depend on the whims of platform owners and the design decisions of technologists.

Link to the rest at Public Books

So long iPhone. Generative AI needs a new device

From The Economist:

When a beaming Mark Zuckerberg took the stage in Menlo Park on September 27th to announce a new array of Meta products, the Facebook supremo may have buried the lead. He began talking about Quest 3, Meta’s virtual-reality (vr) headset, which is understandable considering that his obsession with the metaverse is now inscribed in his company’s identity. Techies, though, were more excited by what came later: an announcement that Meta, in combination with Ray-Ban, would soon launch smart glasses incorporating an artificial-intelligence (ai) virtual assistant. The specs will be able to see and hear, as well as answer their wearers’ questions. With luck, they will not hallucinate.

You can be dismissive of smart glasses. They have been hyped before. But lending Meta credibility this time is the fact that the same week Openai, the generative-ai pioneer, announced that its hit chatbot, Chatgpt, can now see, hear and speak, besides conversing by text. Moreover, it emerged that Openai was in talks with Sir Jony Ive, Apple’s former designer, to create a new gadget for the ai era. What form it will take is still unclear. But if the idea is to build a new consumer-electronics device better suited to the back-and-forth of seeing, talking and listening ais, there is a fair chance it will no longer be reliant on the touchscreen.

. . . .

The smartphone has had a good innings. Yet you only need to talk to Sky, one of Chatgpt’s new audio avatars, to feel the joy of freeing yourself from its tyranny. Your columnist got a taste when he asked Sky how she thought screens might eventually be replaced: Glasses? “Absolutely!” she enthused, “especially those equipped with augmented reality [ar] and ai”. Asked whether this would be a good thing, she recommended two books that explore the enormous impact that screens have had on modern life: “The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember” by Nicholas Carr, an American writer, and “Screened out” by Jean Baudrillard, the late French philosopher. Then, when further prompted, she summarised each in crisp, insightful language with barely a moment’s hesitation. It wasn’t exactly Scarlett Johansson in “Her”. But it felt like having a Stanford University intellectual murmuring in your ear.

This is all rather refreshing. Just as the year-long excitement over “foundational” models and other mind-boggling bits of ai infrastructure has begun to fade, along comes the chance that gen ai, to use the industry shorthand, will unleash an onslaught of new consumer technology. Tech pundits are debating the best “form factor” for the chatbot era. Ben Thompson of Stratechery, a blog and podcast, puts it in epochal terms: “There is a hardware breakthrough waiting to happen just like the internet created the conditions for the smartphone breakthrough to happen.” The ability to talk and listen to chatbots makes Meta’s bet on ar glasses and vr headsets “drastically more compelling”, he writes.

Mr Zuckerberg was early to see this coming. He has ploughed a fortune into vr and ar despite misgivings from investors. He remains excited by the metaverse. This was clear from a remote interview he recently took part in with Lex Fridman, a podcaster, which used vr tools to make their virtual faces so lifelike they felt as if they were in the same room together. (As Mr Fridman quipped, it could reproduce realistic facial movements even from two famously inexpressive people.) And yet gen ai has so dramatically accelerated the use case for smart glasses, Mr Zuckerberg told another interviewer, that there is now “no question” they will be the bigger of the two markets. He likens ar specs to mobile phones and vr headsets to desktops. In both cases he appears to hope they will transcend screens, which he says inhabit “a completely different plane from our physical lives”.

. . . .

The business case for the all-seeing, all-hearing chatbots will also take time to emerge. Openai charges $20 a month for access to its family of talking avatars; Meta’s ai-infused smart glasses will start at $299. Yet developing them is bound to be lossmaking at first. If there ever is a case for monetising them via advertisements or virtual shopping, that will probably take years. Meta’s modus operandi, after all, is to launch a consumer product, scale it up and start making money from it only if it is adopted by the masses.

In the meantime, obvious safety concerns must be tackled. Consumer technology powered by ai is likely to be more immersive than social media, potentially making it even more isolating for some, or triggering unhealthy attachments. Mr Zuckerberg argues that ar and vr devices could help bring people together. But Mr Shmulik says investors will not want Meta to move too fast. “The last thing they need is another negative pr event where they are back in the cross hairs of regulators,” he says.

Link to the rest at The Economist

I was fired by a client for using AI. I’m not going to stop because it’s doubled my output, but I’m more clear about how I use it.

From Insider:

I work a full-time job in marketing and do freelance writing on the side. 

I was juggling a lot when a longtime client commissioned me for a three-month project. It entailed writing a series of how-to guides and 56 articles for their site.

Since I couldn’t clone myself, I tried what I thought would be the next best thing: I used AI.

Convinced that I could use the new technology to meet extremely tight deadlines, I started using to produce up to 20 pieces in a month for this client.

. . . .

I was using AI to clone myself as a writer

I essentially used as an extension of myself.

I’d let Jasper write articles of up to 2,500 words. I used it more than alternatives such as ChatGPT or Bard because it has pre-built templates that function as prompts. 

If I needed to expand on a sentence, I’d use Jasper’s “paragraph generator” or “commands” tool. If I needed to rewrite a sentence, I’d click on “content improver.” These features helped me overcome writer’s block and quickly build out long-form articles.

Jasper did most of the work and I did minimal editing.

After working together for months, my client started using one of the first AI-content detectors. Upon discovering the content I gave them was AI-generated, they terminated our agreement and paid me less than 40% of the original fee after I’d delivered all the articles we’d agreed on.

While this was not the outcome I intended, it shifted my mindset on how to use AI to keep clients rather than lose them.

I learned a valuable lesson the hard way — AI is a tool, not something that should replace you.

Looking back, I know things weren’t right when I was letting AI do the work and not communicating this to my client.

. . . .

Here’s how I use AI differently now:

AI is now a crucial part of my initial discussions with new clients

I ask if the client’s OK with me using AI-writing tools. If not, great; I won’t use it. If they see the value or don’t care whether I use them, then I’ll use them to enhance the quality and depth of what I write.

I use AI to enhance my draft

Some writers use AI to write a draft, then edit it to sound more human. I use it the other way around.

I draft the article first, then use an AI tool to enhance it and ensure I’ve maintained the client’s tone of voice. 

I’d typically beef a draft up with some of Jasper’s templates — using the paragraph generator to expand a sentence into a paragraph, or using the content improver to rewrite text based on tone of voice or type of content. 

Sometimes, Jasper will tell me additional things I can cover, so I’ll include them and support them with expert insights and examples.

I use AI to give me ideas on sources and statistics

Similarly to ChatGPT, Jasper is vulnerable to making mistakes with sources and research; its developers remind users to fact-check any statistics the tool provides. I regard the information it gives as a placeholder that gives me ideas for the kinds of sources, statistics, or websites I can seek out myself. 

The key is always treating statistics and other hard evidence that AI produces as a suggestion.

AI helps with the tone of voice and brand voice

I’ll use Jasper to help me rewrite or add flair to a sentence using the “tone of voice” or “brand voice” features. I could even type in “Ryan Reynolds” and Jasper will rewrite a plain paragraph to sound like the actor.

AI helps with condensing large volumes of text

AI helps me summarize my research findings and insights from relevant subject-matter experts. I’ll upload snippets of a transcript, and the tool will return a condensed paragraph that still includes the salient points.

AI has cut my writing time in half

Link to the rest at Insider

90% of My Skills Are Now Worth $0

From Software Design: Tidy First?:

I wanted to expand on this a bit.

First, I do not have the answer for which skills are in the 90% & which are in the 10%. (I’ll tell you why I concluded that split in a second.) We are back in Explore territory in 3X: Explore/Expand/Extract terms. The only way to find out is to try a little bit of a lot of ideas.

Second, why did I conclude that 90% of my skills had become (economically) worthless? I’m extrapolating wildly from a couple of experiences, which is what I do.

A group of us did a word-smithing exercise yesterday. I took a sentence that was semantically correct & transformed it into something punchy & grabby. I did it through a series of transformations. Someone said, “What this means is XYZ,” and I said, “Just write that.” Then I replaced a weak verb with a stronger one—”would like to” became “crave”.

Having just tried ChatGPT, I realized ChatGPT could have punched up the same sentence just as well & probably more quickly. Anyone who knows to ask (and there is a hint about the remaining 10%) could get the same results.

I’ve spent between 1-2% of my seconds on the planet putting words in a row. For a programmer I’m pretty good at it. The differential value of being better at putting words in a row just dropped to nothing. Anyone can now put words in a row pretty much as well as I can.

I can list skills that have proven valuable to me & clients in the past. Many of them are now replicable to large degree. Others, like baking, not so much (but also rarely valuable in a consulting context).

Third, technological revolutions proceed by:

  1. Radically reducing the cost of something that used to be expensive.
  2. Discovering what is valuable about what has suddenly become cheap.

ChatGPT wrote a rap in the style of Biggie Smalls (RIP) about the Test Desiderata. It wasn’t a great rap, so I’ll spare you the details, but it was a rap. I would never have dreamed of writing one myself. Now the space of things I might do next expanded by 1000. (The Woody Guthrie-style folk song on the same subject was just lame.)

Fourth, to everyone say, “Yeah, but ChatGPT isn’t very good,” I would remind you that technological revolutions aren’t about absolute values but rather growth rates. If I’m big & you’re small & you’re growing faster, then it’s a matter of time before you surpass me.

My skills continue to improve, but ChatGPT’s are improving faster. It’s a matter of time.

What’s next? Try out everything I can think to try out. I’ve already trained a model on my art. I’ll try various tasks with assistance & see what sticks.

. . . .

As someone who has spent decades in the software development industry, I’ve seen my fair share of new technologies and trends come and go. And yet, when I first heard about ChatGPT, I was reluctant to try it out. It’s not that I’m opposed to new technologies or tools, but rather that I was skeptical of how AI language models could truly benefit my work as a software developer.

However, after finally giving ChatGPT a chance, I can say that I now understand why I was reluctant to try it in the first place. The truth is, AI technology like ChatGPT has the power to drastically shift the value of our skills as developers.

In my experience, software development requires a wide range of skills, from problem-solving and critical thinking to programming and debugging. For years, I’ve relied on my expertise in these areas to deliver high-quality software products to my clients.

But with the rise of AI technology, I’m now seeing a shift in the value of these skills. The reality is that many aspects of software development, such as code completion and even bug fixing, can now be automated or augmented by AI tools like ChatGPT. This means that the value of 90% of my skills has dropped to $0.

At first, this realization was disheartening. I had built my career on a set of skills that were now being rendered obsolete by AI. However, upon further reflection, I came to see this shift in value as an opportunity to recalibrate my skills and leverage the remaining 10% in a new way.

Rather than seeing the rise of AI as a threat to my career, I now view it as an opportunity to augment my skills and deliver even greater value to my clients. By embracing AI tools like ChatGPT, I can automate routine tasks and focus my efforts on the areas where my expertise and creativity can truly shine.

For example, ChatGPT can be incredibly useful for brainstorming new solutions to complex problems. As a developer, I often encounter challenges that require me to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions. With ChatGPT, I can input a prompt and get dozens of unique responses that can help me break through creative blocks and deliver more innovative solutions.

Similarly, ChatGPT can be used to analyze and understand complex code bases. As a developer, I’m often tasked with reviewing and debugging large code bases. With ChatGPT, I can input a query and get relevant information in seconds, helping me to quickly understand and navigate even the most complex code.

But perhaps the most exciting opportunity presented by AI technology is the ability to collaborate with other developers and share knowledge at a faster rate than ever before. With ChatGPT, developers can input questions or prompts and receive relevant responses from other developers around the world in real-time. This means that we can tap into the collective knowledge of our industry and deliver even greater value to our clients.

In conclusion, while I was initially reluctant to try ChatGPT, I now see the value that AI technology can bring to the world of software development. While the value of some of our skills may be decreasing, the opportunity to leverage the remaining 10% in new and innovative ways is tremendous. By embracing AI tools like ChatGPT, we can work smarter, not harder, and deliver even greater value to our clients and our industry as a whole.

Link to the rest at Software Design: Tidy First?

From papyrus to pixels

From The Economist:

FINGERS stroke vellum; the calfskin pages are smooth, like paper, but richer, almost oily. The black print is crisp, and every Latin sentence starts with a lush red letter. One of the book’s early owners has drawn a hand and index finger which points, like an arrow, to passages worth remembering.

In 44BC Cicero, the Roman Republic’s great orator, wrote a book for his son Marcus called de Officiis (“On Duties”). It told him how to live a moral life, how to balance virtue with self-interest, how to have an impact. Not all his words were new. De Officiis draws on the views of various Greek philosophers whose works Cicero could consult in his library, most of which have since been lost. Cicero’s, though, remain. De Officiis was read and studied throughout the rise of the Roman Empire and survived the subsequent fall. It shaped the thought of Renaissance thinkers like Erasmus; centuries later still it inspired Voltaire. “No one will ever write anything more wise,” he said.

. . . .

The book’s words have not changed; their vessel, though, has gone through relentless reincarnation and metamorphosis. Cicero probably dictated de Officiis to his freed slave, Tiro, who copied it down on a papyrus scroll from which other copies were made in turn. Within a few centuries some versions were transferred from scrolls into bound books, or codices. A thousand years later monks meticulously made copies by hand, averaging only a few pages a day. Then, in the 15th century, de Officiis was copied by a machine. The lush edition in your correspondent’s hands—delightfully, and surprisingly, no gloves are needed to handle it—is one of the very first such copies. It was printed in Mainz, Germany, on a printing press owned by Johann Fust, an early partner of Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneer of European printing. It is dated 1466.

Some 500 years after it was printed, this beautiful volume sits in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, its home since 1916. Few physical volumes survive five centuries. This one should last several more. The vault that holds it and tens of thousands of other volumes, built in 1951, was originally meant to double as a nuclear-bomb shelter.

Although this copy of de Officiis may be sequestered, the book itself is freer than ever. In its printed forms it has been a hardback and, more recently, a paperback, published in all sorts of editions—as a one off, a component of uniform library editions, a classic pitched at an affordable price, a scholarly, annotated text that only universities buy. And now it is available in all sorts of non-printed forms, too. You can read it free online or download it as an e-book in English, Latin and any number of other tongues.

Many are worried about what such technology means for books, with big bookshops closing, new devices spreading, novice authors flooding the market and an online behemoth known as Amazon growing ever more powerful. Their anxieties cannot simply be written off as predictable technophobia. The digital transition may well change the way books are written, sold and read more than any development in their history, and that will not be to everyone’s advantage. Veterans and revolutionaries alike may go bust; Gutenberg died almost penniless, having lost control of his press to Fust and other creditors.

But to see technology purely as a threat to books risks missing a key point. Books are not just “tree flakes encased in dead cow”, as a scholar once wryly put it. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.

Books like de Officiis have not merely weathered history; they have helped shape it. The ability they offer to preserve, transmit and develop ideas was taken to another level by Gutenberg and his colleagues. Being able to study printed material at the same time as others studied it and to exchange ideas about it sparked the Reformation; it was central to the Enlightenment and the rise of science. No army has accomplished more than printed textbooks have; no prince or priest has mattered as much as “On the Origin of Species”; no coercion has changed the hearts and minds of men and women as much as the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays.

Books read in electronic form will boast the same power and some new ones to boot. The printed book is an excellent means of channelling information from writer to reader; the e-book can send information back as well. Teachers will be able to learn of a pupil’s progress and questions; publishers will be able to see which books are gulped down, which sipped slowly. Already readers can see what other readers have thought worthy of note, and seek out like-minded people for further discussion of what they have read. The private joys of the book will remain; new public pleasures are there to be added.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Don’t fear an AI-induced jobs apocalypse just yet

From The Economist:

“I think we might exceed a one-to-one ratio of humanoid robots to humans,” Elon Musk declared on March 1st. Coming from the self-styled technoking of Tesla, it was not so much a prediction as a promise. Mr Musk’s car company is developing one such artificially intelligent automaton, codenamed Optimus, for use at home and in the factory. His remarks, made during Tesla’s investor day, were accompanied by a video of Optimus walking around apparently unassisted.

Given that Mr Musk did not elaborate how—or when—you get from a promotional clip to an army of more than 8bn robots, this might all smack of science-fiction. But he has waded into a very real debate about the future of work. For certain forms of ai-enabled automation are fast becoming science fact. Since November Chatgpt, an ai conversationalist, has dazzled users with its passable impression of a human interlocutor. Other “generative” ais have been conjuring up similarly human-like texts, images and sounds by analysing reams of data on the internet. Last month the boss of ibm, a computing giant, forecast that ai will do away with much white-collar clerical work. On March 6th Microsoft announced the launch of a suite of ai “co-pilots” for workers in jobs ranging from sales and marketing to supply-chain management. Excitable observers murmur about a looming job apocalypse.

Fears over the job-displacing effects of technology are, of course, nothing new. In early 19th-century Britain, Luddites burned factory machines. The term “automation” first rose to prominence as the adoption of wartime innovations in mechanisation sparked a wave of panic over mass joblessness in the 1950s (see chart 1). In 1978 James Callaghan, Britain’s prime minister, greeted the breakthrough technology of his era—the microprocessor—with a government inquiry into its job-killing potential. Ten years ago Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University published a blockbuster paper, since cited over 5,000 times, claiming that 47% of the tasks American workers perform could be automated away “over the next decade or two”. Now even the techno-optimistic Mr Musk wonders what it would mean for robots to outnumber humans: “It’s not even clear what an economy is at that point.”

. . . .

The immediate problem for advanced economies is, then, not too much automation but too little. It is exacerbated by the fact that, for large businesses, automating has been hard to get right in practice. It is likely to prove no easier with the latest buzzy ais.

Rage for the machine

Mechanical arms on a factory floor performing repetitive tasks such as welding, drilling or moving an object have been around for decades. Robot usage historically centred on the car industry, whose heavy parts and large batches with limited variety are ideally suited to the machines. The electronics industry, with its need for precise but repetitive movements, was also an early adopter.

More recently the list of industries embracing robots has widened, observes Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, an American industry group. Advances in computer vision have made robots more dexterous, notes Sami Atiya, who runs the robotics business of abb, a Swiss industrial firm. Lightweight “collaborative robots” now work side-by-side with humans rather than in cages, and autonomous vehicles ferry objects from one spot to another in factories and warehouses.

At the same time, robot prices have tumbled. The average price of an industrial robot fell from $69,000 in 2005 to $27,000 in 2017, according to Ark Invest, an asset manager. Last December abb opened a 67,000-square-metre “mega factory‘‘ in Shanghai where robots make other robots. Installation costs have come down, too, with newer “no code” systems requiring no programming expertise, notes Susanne Bieller, general secretary of the International Federation of Robotics (ifr), another industry group.

As a result of better technology and lower prices, the global stock of industrial robots grew from 1m in 2011 to nearly 3.5m in 2021 (see chart 2). Sales at Fanuc, a big Japanese robot-maker, rose by 17% last quarter, year on year; those of Keyence, a Japanese firm that acts as an automation consultant to the world’s factories, shot up by 24%. Though down from the frothy peaks of 2021, when bosses sought alternatives to human workforces incapacitated by covid-19, robot-makers’ share prices remain a fifth higher than before the pandemic.

. . . .

For all that growth, however, absolute levels of adoption remain low, especially in the West. According to the ifr, even South Korean firms, by far the world’s keenest robot-adopters, employ ten manufacturing workers for every industrial robot—a long way from Mr Musk’s vision. In America, China, Europe and Japan the figure is 25-40 to one. The $25bn that, according to consultants at bcg, the world spent on industrial robots in 2020 was less than 1% of global capital expenditure (excluding the energy and mining sectors). People spent more on sex toys.

. . . .

Businesses are now beginning to embrace generative ai, too. But as with robots and process automation, bedding in the new technology will not happen overnight. Allen & Overy, a law firm that in February launched a virtual legal assistant with Chatgpt-like powers, requires its lawyers to cross-check everything the bot spits out. cnet, a tech-news site, starting in November quietly published 73 articles written by a bot, first to the consternation and then the delight of journalists, after the articles were found to be riddled with errors.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Maybe the Book Doesn’t Need to Be “Disrupted” in the First Place?

From Counter Craft:

A dozen years ago, I was out of grad school and desperate for a job. (Ideally one I could slack off in while I wrote my novel.) I ended up in the offices of a tech startup that had big plans to use the emerging tech of ebooks to innovate, amplify, revolutionize, and fundamentally disrupt the entire concept of books! The exact name of the company doesn’t matter. There were plenty of them. “Enhanced ebooks” were buzzed about in every newspaper and VCs were tossing millions at anyone who could put “gamify” and “publish” in the same sentence. The future was here, and these radical techno-books would make Gutenberg look like a troglodyte.

How would books be revolutionized? That was less clear. Mostly the plan seemed to be adding pop-up videos and images to ebook files. You could be reading The Great Gatsby and click on the sentence “a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock” and see what a green light looks like I guess.

It seemed silly to me. Beyond a few specific types of books—a high school history textbook, say—few people are looking to have their reading experience constantly interrupted by pop-up videos. It’s distracting enough reading with cellphone text notifications going off. The last thing I want reading a novel is to pause mid-chapter and watch a video clip.

Perhaps my face showed my skepticism. I didn’t get the job. But 12 years later—a lifetime in tech—and the book is in more or less the shame shape it was 12 years ago or 120 years ago. “Enhanced ebooks” went nowhere. Ebooks themselves certainly exist, but despite all the hype about new fancy features most ebook readers—themselves a minority of book buyers—want their digital books to resemble printed books about as closely as possible.

In the intervening years, I’ve seen countless versions of enhanced books hyped. Last year, there were articles about how “web 3” and crypto would completely change publishing by [something something string of jargon] block chain! All the magazines publishing daily articles on Web 3 and NFTs have stopped talking about them, seemingly in embarrassment as the crypto space has been exposed as a series of Ponzi schemes.

. . . .

So naturally everyone who, last year, was declaring crypto would revolutionize every aspect of life have pivoted to saying “A.I.” will revolutionize every aspect of life. And, like the tweet above, that means lots of predictions about how the book will be disrupted. (Commenters to the above tweet also suggested putting books in the “metaverse” so you can “live” books instead of read them, whatever that means…)

Link to the rest at Counter Craft

PG has a long-neglected post category on TPV for Enhanced Ebooks.

He created the category several years ago when there was lots of buzz from a variety of locations predicting enhanced ebooks would sweep over both traditional publishing and self-publishing.

PG just checked in the TPV archives and found he hasn’t applied the Enhanced Ebook post category for since 2019 and that tag was for a post titled, Why Did Interactive Ebooks Never Catch On?

He used the Enhanced Ebook tage 3-4 times in 2018 and decided he wouldn’t dig into the super-deep archives to check on prior instances of Enhanced Ebook posts.

PG posits a few reasons for the Enhanced Ebook flame-out:

  1. It’s a lot of work to write a book that consists of words on a screen and spending a lot more time doing whatever meaningful enhancing that might strike an author’s fancy is likely to take a lot more time to avoid the lame/fail tag, thus preventing the author from working on the words for her/his next unenhanced ebook.
  2. Talent in using a word processing program to put words on a screen and hard drive is quite a bit different than creating illustrations, find the clue games, etc., so the large majority of successful/semi-successful indie authors would have to recruit someone else to do that sort of thing. PG expects that, just like the author of the words, the author of the enhancing would generally like to be paid for his/her/their work.
  3. For a traditional publisher, enhanced ebooks look like another cost item on the profit/loss spreadsheet which the big bosses in Europe would never approve. Plus, nobody ever got fired in publishing for doing the same thing over and over.
  4. There is no accepted standard for enhanced ebooks, so what sort of devices/apps will need to be developed for enhanced ebooks and do you grandfather in PG’s 2015 Paperwhite ereader or an iPad that’s five years old, or various versions of Android, etc., etc.?

PG posits that creating a sophisticated and usable enhanced ebook authoring program and testing that program with all the electronic devices in use and developed in the future that people would want to use to create Enhanced Ebooks and also engineering the apps, etc., necessary for readers to have a decent experience reading it are not going to happen unless a brilliant tech zillionaire is willing to spend the money to create a sizeable company to build the necessary tools, infrastructure, etc.

Would enhanced ebooks compete with video? If so, there’s a huge number of organizations that are already pouring bazillions of videos online.

PG has gone on for too long about this subject and will stop before Mrs. PG asks what he’s doing in the basement this time.

Democracy dies behind paywalls

From What’s New in Publishing:

We all surf dozens – even hundreds – of sites and sources, yet none of us can afford to subscribe to everything we’d want to consume. But today we are being forced to subscribe wherever we go – cutting off everyone from access to diverse and crucial information. This is dangerous – here is why.

One of the most important taglines in recent history may be the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” To me, it is a mission statement about journalism’s role in society – to inform, to explain, to educate. It implies that if you don’t have access to information, you are simply in the dark. Today, in 2022, it looks like democracy now dies behind paywalls.

This morning, I wanted to read about how a new “anti-white bigotry” movement is gaining momentum – but then I hit a paywall. So I tried to access an article about Twitter dissolving its Trust and Safety Council, but hit the paywall again. A story about Moderna’s mRNA Cancer Vaccine looked very interesting, but could I read it? Not without a subscription.

And by the way, none of these articles were part of my subscription to the New York Times – so I could only read about them somewhere else. This happens to all of us all of the time.

The Internet gave rise to a massive paradigm shift – moving from the paperboy delivering news on our doorsteps to us now accessing any news we want to with a click on our phone. The way content is consumed has fundamentally changed – from a ‘push’ model to what can now be considered ‘pull.’ We live our lives online, looking for content ourselves — the stories we like, the news we’re interested in, jumping directly to the content we want.

The rise of paywall apartheid

In their search for revenue sources to compensate for dropping advertising, publishers are increasingly making quality journalism only accessible to paying customers. It’s understandable from a business perspective. If you have great quality content behind the paywall it attracts users and converts some of them into subscribers – that’s especially the case with exclusive content that explains and interprets important societal, political, and cultural events. But by focusing on subscriptions as their primary revenue source, publishers are making this journalism only accessible to paying subscribers, and that’s where the danger lies.

After all, what are we going to do if we simply don’t want to pay for a subscription (whether because we can’t afford it, we simply have too many subscriptions, it’s a nuisance to sign up, etc.)? It is a pain.

Because the nature of publishing has changed from push to pull, if a reader cannot afford a subscription to access a publisher’s content, they will end up going somewhere else, where the content is available to them easily, or for free, or they bail entirely.

According to a recent NRG and Toolkits report, 53% of U.S. consumers say they attempt to bypass paywalls on publishers’ websites when they encounter them. 66% of respondents say that paywalls make them dislike the website or publication, with 40% saying they instead search for the content on a different website. And this can have potentially disastrous results as it is precisely those freely accessible sites that often have incorrect, biased, or outright false perspectives and narratives.

Extreme political organizations would never have gained such popularity if their discussions and opinions were locked behind a paywall, but because it was free, it drew people in much easier than paid versions. In cases like this, by only allowing access to content via a subscription, publishers are potentially funneling people in the direction that they actually want to protect them from – into the arms of free content that may inspire them to think entirely differently.

The problem is real for everyone – even Elon Musk suffers from it. Here’s what he had to say in a recent interview (prior to his acquisition of Twitter):

I don’t want to get a subscription to the Philadelphia Inquirer, but I’m sure they have, every other day, a good article that I’d like to read. But I don’t want, like 12,000 subscriptions… I understand that all these publications want to maximize their subscribers… But there’s a huge number of people who are never going to subscribe to that publication.Elon Musk

73% of US consumers don’t subscribe to digital publications

According to data just released by the NRG and Toolkits report – 73% of US consumers don’t currently subscribe to digital publications at all. In other words, most people just won’t subscribe. This means we run the risk of being trapped in information bubbles, fed by search algorithms and the limitations of the content we are able to access. If we don’t subscribe to a publication, we don’t get access, which in turn means we have less access to diverse content. Instead, we turn to content that is free – and often more biased, and as the search algorithms learn and reinforce our consumption habits, the information bubble becomes ever more solid.

I think we’d all agree that everyone would benefit from more access to better, quality information. Better content allows for a better culture of discussion and debate, maybe even leading to more balanced political decision-making. And that is not only a good thing in its own right, but it also leads to potentially less extremist points of view.

Limiting the pool accessible to all other readers to just a few pieces of content or media can simply have dangerous effects on civil society and its understanding of democracy. The fewer people who have access to high-quality information from diverse sources, the easier it is for populist or even extreme platforms to pursue their business without counterarguments, and the greater the likelihood that half-truths and fake news will be believed.

Link to the rest at What’s New in Publishing

PG is annoyed by paywalls, but doesn’t think they’re a threat to democracy.

If he really wants to read about a news item that’s behind a paywall, usually a Google search will lead him to another recent and relevant article about the topic, whether it’s a factual or opinion piece.

The most common major news publications that are paywalled are what used to be called newspapers or magazines. Some even print their publications. On paper. Which causes lovely trees to be cut down in a forest somewhere. Every issue results in more trees being cut down, which are then trucked to a factory that uses more energy to change them into pulp and then paper. Which has to be shipped to a big printing factory, unloaded into a warehouse, then moved from the warehouse to where the giant energy-consuming printers are located. To be turned into physical newspapers, which are then trucked or moved by other energy-consuming transportation means to a whole bunch of different locations where people actually read news on paper.

The electronic alternative to all this industrial age news technology is to use a bunch of organized electrons to send the information and stories all over the world with a small fraction of the energy it takes to use dead trees to transport information.

From an objective point of view, which way is the best method for rapid dissemination of useful and accurate information?

PG notes that there is no guarantee that information behind a paywall is more accurate than information that is not.

The large majority of “quality” traditional newspapers have always charged people who wanted to read them, so there’s always been a paywall on their content.

On many more than one occasion, the printed stories were not accurate or favored one view over an opposing view and included information, accurate or not so accurate, that reflected the “narrative” that the owners/editors wanted the public to hear and adopt as its own.

In newspaper days of yore, owners/publishers/editors thought nothing about promoting movements, contemporary issues, political parties, views of various types of commerce, etc., etc. In the glory days of American newspapers, a reader could choose a newspaper that closely mirrored her/his opinions about politics and many other topics. The internet didn’t invent that sort of thing.

Mona Lisa in AI

PG decided to conduct an ai art experiment.

He created four images with the identical prompt, “Mona Lisa in the style of Leonardo DaVinci” and here’s what he got, four different images via one of the most commonly-used AI art generators – DALL·E 2 – OpenAI

And, finally, here’s a copy of the real thing:

PG posits that, if Leonardo had finished his painting a couple of years ago and registered it with the United States Copyright Office, he would be very unlikely to prevail in a copyright suit against the creators of any of the AI-generated images or the owners or creators of the programs that generated them.

None of the AI images would serve as a substitute for the original. No one would mistake any of the AI images for the original. At best, the AI images would be non-infringing satirical art. No one would buy an AI image as a substitute for the real thing. No one looking at the AI images would have been fooled into thinking it was a painting created by Leonardo.

PG acknowledges that there are different kinds of technical tools that generate deepfake images of individuals or images of individuals. Those are a different animal from AI Image creators.

AI won an art contest, and artists are furious

From CNN:

Jason M. Allen was almost too nervous to enter his first art competition. Now, his award-winning image is sparking controversy about whether art can be generated by a computer, and what, exactly, it means to be an artist.

In August, Allen, a game designer who lives in Pueblo West, Colorado, won first place in the emerging artist division’s “digital arts/digitally-manipulated photography” category at the Colorado State Fair Fine Arts Competition. His winning image, titled “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” (French for “Space Opera Theater”), was made with Midjourney — an artificial intelligence system that can produce detailed images when fed written prompts. A $300 prize accompanied his win.

“I’m fascinated by this imagery. I love it. And it think everyone should see it,” Allen, 39, told CNN Business in an interview on Friday.

In August, Jason M. Allen’s piece “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” — which he created with AI image generator Midjourney — won first place in the emerging artist division’s “digital arts/digitally-manipulated photography” category at the Colorado State Fair Fine Arts Competition. – Courtesy Jason M. Allen
Allen’s winning image looks like a bright, surreal cross between a Renaissance and steampunk painting. It’s one of three such images he entered in the competition. In total, 11 people entered 18 pieces of art in the same category in the emerging artist division.

The definition for the category in which Allen competed states that digital art refers to works that use “digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process.” Allen stated that Midjourney was used to create his image when he entered the contest, he said.

Link to the rest at CNN and thanks to F. for the tip.

PG has posted about artificial intelligence in the arts previously and says these sorts of complaints/disputes can be expected for some period of time.

Perhaps there are authors who still create their books by writing in long-hand (the advances in technology that have brought us modern pens make this much easier than in former days), but he suspects someone will have to turn that into a digital file using a computer before it can be submitted to a traditional publisher and, of course, Amazon requires it.

PG suspects everyone except the most niche publishers create an ebook version of a book that they print. And the printed version of the book is produced from an electronic original that a computer likely formatted.

These are all technologies that didn’t exist 10-30 years ago have become accepted standards in this artistic field.

PG understands the complaints of Colorado artists that likely created their entries for the Fine Art competition for digital arts/digitally-manipulated photography with Photoshop, Corel Painter or Affinity Photo may have spent more time on their entries, but each of them used a computer program to generate the final piece of visual art and, PG suspects, would not have been able to produce such a product with a paintbrush.

PG’s own experimentation with ai art have taught him that the process of creating the word prompts that set various programs to work is definitely a learned skill and he suspects some people are better at using the ai art computer programs than others are.

See the post that will appear just after this one does to see that some people are better at using ai art programs than others.

The Rise of Insta-Artists and Insta-Poets

From The Literary Hub:

In April 2014, Amalia Ulman, a recent art school graduate living in Los Angeles, started to upload images of herself to Instagram. Her first image, accompanied by the caption “Excellences & Perfections,” received twenty-eight likes. Over the coming months, Ulman continued to upload selfies documenting her semifictionalized makeover. Some of the images, like the one of her recovery from breast augmentation surgery, were pure fiction.

Others, including those taken at her pole-dancing lessons, reflected things she was actually doing as part of her self-transformation. Like millions of other young women who post selfies on Instagram, Ulman was using the platform to construct a semifictional narrative about herself. Unlike most young women, her carefully curated postings about her life would ultimately be embraced as art.

In a 2015 Art Review article, Eric Morse observed that in Ulman’s Instagram work, eventually titled Excellences & Perfections, “promises of voyeuristic spectacle and salacious confession ignited her account’s real-time fan base and drew mainstream coverage from pop culture glossies like New York Magazinei-D and Dazed and Confused.”

But according to Morse, Ulman didn’t just garner an online following during her durational performance on Instagram. “What continues to fascinate most about Ulman’s progressing oeuvre,” Morse observes, “is not only the vast conceptual net under which she interrogates theories of identity, domesticity and fantasy, but the challenging heterogeneity of disciplines and templates that she engages from exhibition to exhibition—from poetry to design to online performance.”

The critical reception of Ulman’s social media performance work hasn’t always been as positive as Morse’s laudatory review, but it has been copious, and in a content age, quantity is what matters. Ulman clearly understood this, which is why she felt compelled to start producing work about herself online in the first place. As she explained in a 2018 statement in Art Forum, “There is an expectation now that artists should be online and on social media promoting themselves, but that the promotion shouldn’t be the work per se. It felt like a requirement, especially as a woman, to expose oneself to sell the work in a way.”

Ulman’s decision to produce content about herself (not herself as an artist but simply as a young, sexualized woman) ultimately proved wildly successful—more successful than her previous artwork. What her online performance also revealed is that in an age of content, content isn’t just something needed to promote one’s art. Increasingly, content is art or, at least, what has come to stand in for art.

But what does this mean for artists and writers and the broader field of cultural production? If cultural producers are now under immense pressure to produce content—not necessarily about their art or writing but about themselves—is culture itself now nothing more or less than the sum of the content one can produce about their alleged lives as artists or writers? Rather than the “death of the author” heralded by French novelist and philosopher Roland Barthes in the 1960s, are we now witnessing its counterpoint—a cultural sphere where nothing remains but a cult of celebrity being played out on digital platforms?

The field of cultural production in which Ulman and other contemporary artists and writers now work is still partially structured by traditional forms of reception and circulation. In Ulman’s case, reviews of her work in publications such as Art Review and the exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern in London and New Museum in New York City certainly contributed to her success, but neither of these achievements secured her success in the first place. Her ability to gain a foothold in the modern art world was propelled by her willingness to produce content about her life and share it on a social media platform. And Ulman isn’t alone.

Most artists and writers now rely on a similar strategy—or more precisely, content strategy. In the 2020s, if you want to be a successful artist or writer, you don’t necessarily need cultural or social capital or even a preexisting body of art or writing to succeed. What matters most is your content capital.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG is pretty much on the side of anybody who dodges gate-keepers and official taste-makers. The internet continues to flow around the cultural intermediaries that held sway during ancient times.

As Paul Simon wrote many years ago:

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenements halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.

Artificial Intelligence – Images

Here’s another example of artificial intelligence creating original images:

This was created by using the following prompt to the AI: Gothic Victorian London with harmonic colors created by subtle brush strokes.

This was created using, which provides online creation of images via artificial intelligence. The site offers some rudimentary images at no charge, but if you want to get faster results and more detail, you’ll need to pay them some money.

Here’s a link to a variety of AI images on the website.

Artificial Intelligence – Text to Speech

Amazon has a website as part of its Amazon Web Services site that demonstrates various applications of artificial intelligence:

One of those sites is for the demonstration of Amazon Polly, a text-to-speech program. PG understands that Polly has multi-lingual capabilities, but it appears PG is not located in a region that has access to more than English.

Here is a speech file with Polly translating a written quote from Helen Keller in one of its many female voices:

Here is a speech file with Polly translating a partial quote from the Declaration of Independence in ont of its many male voices:

Here is Polly translating the Declaration of Independence quote using a younger male voice. You will notice that the recorded translation to the younger male voice is a few seconds longer than the adult male voice above.

Here’s a link to Amazon Polly

Long-standing literary magazines are struggling to stay afloat. Where do they go from here?

From CNN:

The Believer was once at the top of the literary magazine game.

A leading journal of art and culture, The Believer published the work of icons like Leslie Jamison, Nick Hornby and Anne Carson. It won awards, it launched careers — it created a home for off-beat, quirky writing. When the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada bought the magazine, observers spoke of Las Vegas as a potential new hub for literary arts.

Then, in October of last year, the college announced it was shutting the magazine down in early 2022, citing the “financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.” In a statement explaining the decision, the dean of the school’s College of Liberal Arts called print publications like The Believer “a financially challenging endeavor.”

The news came months after an incident where the editor in chief exposed himself during a video call with staff and subsequently resigned. Staffers’ complaints about him were also detailed in a Los Angeles Times report.Still, the announcement caused ripples throughout the literary world — Jamison, known for her book of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” tweeted that she was “heartbroken” over the news when it was announced.The Believer’s shuttering isn’t isolated. Across the country, universities are slowly, quietly, cutting funding and shutting their literary publications down. Even magazines not connected to universities are closing their doors or changing publication strategies — a trend made worse by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Colleges everywhere are cutting lit mags

Literary magazines aren’t exactly flashy — they aren’t covered in photos of beautiful people draped in designer clothing; they don’t contain the latest celebrity tell-all.But in the world of literary arts, they’re essential. For early-career poets, essayists and fiction writers, these magazines are a way to get publi

shed, find an agent and get paid. They serve as a stepping stone — no one, after all, just jumps into a book deal. Credits through literary magazines present a pathway.

In Jamison’s tribute to The Believer, for example, she thanked the magazine for publishing her landmark essay “Empathy Exams” when nobody else would. (CNN reached out to staff at The Believer and Black Mountain Institute for comment, but did not receive a response.)

It’s not just about career building, though. The magazines are a runway, where new literary styles are tested and emerge. New voices break through. If only large, established magazines continue to exist — like The Paris Review or the New Yorker — the diversity of the literary world will suffer, as Alaska Quarterly Review co-founder and editor-in-chief Ronald Spatz told CNN.

Link to the rest at CNN

PG gently suggests that the world passed by literary magazines some time ago.

He felt the slightest twitch of nostalgia when he read the OP, but it was strictly an old guy response to days long past. He doubts many ambitious young authors today would bother with a medium so antiquated.

If you’re a good writer and want to write literary magazine material, start a blog, tell all your friends about it and see who shows up.

How Collaborating With Artificial Intelligence Could Help Writers of the Future

From The Literary Hub:

Art has long been claimed as a final frontier for automation—a field seen as so ineluctably human that AI may never master it. But as robots paint self-portraits, machines overtake industries, and natural language processors write New York Times columns, this long-held belief could be on the way out.

Computational literature or electronic literature—that is, literature that makes integral use of or is generated by digital technology—is hardly new. Alison Knowles used the programming language FORTRAN to write poems in 1967 and a novel allegedly written by a computer was printed as early as 1983. Universities have had digital language arts departments since at least the 90s. One could even consider the mathematics-inflected experiments of Oulipo as a precursor to computational literature, and they’re experiments that computers have made more straightforward. Today, indie publishers offer remote residencies in automated writing and organizations like the Electronic Literature Organization and the Red de Literatura Electrónica Latinoamericana hold events across the world. NaNoGenMo—National Novel Generation Month—just concluded its sixth year this April.

As technology advances, headlines express wonder at books co-written by AI advancing in literary competitions and automated “mournful” poetry inspired by Romance novels—with such resonant lines as “okay, fine. yes, right here. no, not right now” and “i wanted to kill him. i started to cry.” We can read neo-Shakespeare (“And the sky is not bright to behold yet: / Thou hast not a thousand days to tell me thou art beautiful.”), and Elizabeth Bishop and Kafka revised by a machine. One can purchase sci-fi novels composed, designed, blurbed, and priced by AI. Google’s easy-to-use Verse by Verse promises users an “AI-powered muse that helps you compose poetry inspired by classic American poets.” If many of these examples feel gimmicky, it’s because they are. However, that doesn’t preclude AI literature that, in the words of poet, publisher, and MIT professor Nick Montfort, “challenges the way [one] reads[s] and offers new ways to think about language, literature, and computation.”

. . . .

Ross Goodwin’s 1 the Road (2018) is often described as one of the first novels written completely by AI. To read it like a standard novel wouldn’t get one far, though whether that says more about this text or the traditional novel could be debated. Much of the book comprises timestamps, location data, mentions of businesses and billboards and barns—all information collected from Four Square data, a camera, GPS, and other inputs. But the computer also generated characters: the painter, the children. There is dialogue; there are tears. There are some evocative, if confused, descriptions: “The sky is blue, the bathroom door and the beam of the car ride high up in the sun. Even the water shows the sun” or “A light on the road was the size of a door, and the wind was still so strong that the sun struck the bank. Trees in the background came from the streets, and the sound of the door was falling in the distance.” There is a non-sequitur reference to a Nazi and dark lines like “35.416002034 N, -77.999832991 W, at 164.85892916 feet above sea level, at 0.0 miles per hour, in the distance, the prostitutes stand as an artist seen in the parking lot with its submissive characters and servants.”

K Allado-McDowell, who in their role with the Artist + Machine Intelligence program at Google supported 1 the Road, argued in their introduction to the text that 1 the Road represented a kind of late capitalist literary road trip, where instead of writing under the influence of amphetamines or LSD, the machine tripped on an “automated graphomania,” evincing what they more recently described to me as a “dark, normcore-cyberpunk experience.”

To say 1 the Road was entirely written by AI is a bit disingenuous. Not because it wasn’t machine-generated, but rather because Goodwin made curatorial choices throughout the project, including the corpus the system was fed (texts like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestHell’s Angels, and, of course, On the Road), the surveillance camera mounted on the Cadillac that fed the computer images, and the route taken. Goodwin, who is billed as the book’s “writer of writer,” leans into the questions of authorship that this process raised, asking: is the car the writer? The road? The AI? Himself? “That uncertainty [of the manuscript’s author] may speak more to the anthropocentric nature of our language than the question of authorship itself,” he writes.

AI reconfigures how we consider the role and responsibilities of the author or artist. Prominent researchers of AI and digital narrative identity D. Fox Harrell and Jichen Zhu wrote in 2012 that the discursive aspect of AI (such as applying intentionality through words like “knows,” “resists,” “frustration,” and “personality”) is an often neglected but equally pertinent aspect as the technical underpinnings. “As part of a feedback loop, users’ collective experiences with intentional systems will shape our society’s dominant view of intentionality and intelligence, which in turn may be incorporated by AI researchers into their evolving formal definition of the key intentional terms.”

That is, interactions with and discussions about machine intelligence shape our views of human thought and action and, circularly, humanity’s own changing ideologies around intelligence again shape AI; what it means to think and act is up for debate. More recently, Elvia Wilk, writing in The Atlantic on Allado-McDowell’s work, asks, “Why do we obsessively measure AI’s ability to write like a person? Might it be nonhuman and creative?” What, she wonders, could we learn about our own consciousness if we were to answer this second question with maybe, or even yes?

This past year, Allado-McDowell released Pharmako-AI (2020), billed as “the first book to be written with emergent AI.” Divided into 17 chapters on themes such as AI ethics, ayahuasca rituals, cyberpunk, and climate change, it is perhaps one of the most coherent literary prose experiments completed with machine learning, working with OpenAI’s large language model GPT-3. Though the human inputs and GPT-3 outputs are distinguished by typeface, the reading experience slips into a linguistic uncanny valley: the certainty GPT-3 writes with and the way its prose is at once convincingly “human” but yet just off unsettles assumptions around language, literature, and thought, an unsettling furthered by the continuity of the “I” between Allado-McDowell and GPT-3.

. . . .

But as AI “thinking” reflects new capacities for human potential, it also reflects humanity’s limits; after all, machine learning is defined by the sources that train it. When Allado-McDowell points out the dearth of women and non-binary people mentioned by both themselves and by GPT-3, the machine responds with a poem that primarily refers to its “grandfather.” Allado-McDowell intervenes: “When I read this poem, I experience the absence of women and non-binary people.” “Why is it so hard to generate the names of women?” GPT asks, a few lines later.

Why indeed. Timnit Gebru, a prominent AI scientist and ethicist, was forced out of Google for a paper that criticized the company’s approach to AI large language models. She highlighted the ways these obscure systems could perpetuate racist and sexist biases, be environmentally harmful, and further homogenize language by privileging the text of those who already have the most power and access.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

One of the comments in the items PG looked at in connection with this post claimed that Pharmako-AI was not the first book written by GPT-3. The commenter claimed that GPT-3 Techgnosis; A Chaos Magick Butoh Grimoire was the first GPT-3-authored book.

While looking for GPT-3 Techgnosis; A Chaos Magick Butoh Grimoire on Amazon, PG found Sybil’s World: An AI Reimagines Herself and Her World Using GPT-3 and discovered that there was a sequel to GPT-3 Techgnosis; A Chaos Magick Butoh Grimoi called Sub/Urban Butoh Fu: A CYOA Chaos Magick Grimoire and Oracle (Butoh Technomancy Book 2)

The Publishing Ecosystem in the Digital Era

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN 1995, I WENT to work as a writer and editor for Book World, the then-standalone book-review section of The Washington Post. I left a decade later, two years before Amazon released the Kindle ebook reader. By then, mainstream news outlets like the Post were on the ropes, battered by what sociologist John B. Thompson, in Book Wars, calls “the digital revolution” and its erosion of print subscriptions and advertising revenue. The idea that a serious newspaper had to have a separate book-review section seems quaint now. Aside from The New York Times Book Review, most of Book World’s competitors have faded into legend, like the elves departing from Middle-earth at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Their age has ended, though the age of the book has not.

Nobody arrives better equipped than Thompson to map how the publishing ecosystem has persisted and morphed in the digital environment. An emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge and emeritus fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, Thompson conducts his latest field survey of publishing through a rigorous combination of data analysis and in-depth interviews. Book Wars comes stuffed with graphs and tables as well as detailed anecdotes. The data component can get wearisome for a reader not hip-deep in the business, but it’s invaluable to have such thorough documentation of the digital publishing multiverse.

. . . .

One big question animates Thompson’s investigation: “So what happens when the oldest of our media industries collides with the great technological revolution of our time?” That sounds like hyperbole — book publishing hasn’t exactly stood still since Gutenberg. A lot happens in 500 years, even without computers. But for an industry built on the time-tested format of print books, the internet understandably looked and felt like an existential threat as well as an opportunity.

Early on in his study, Thompson neatly evokes the fear that accompanied the advent of ebooks. The shift to digital formats had already eviscerated the music industry; no wonder publishers felt queasy. As Thompson writes, “Were books heading in the same direction as CDs and vinyl LPs — on a precipitous downward slope and likely to be eclipsed by digital downloads? Was this the beginning of the end of the physical book?” That question has been asked over and over again for decades now, and the answer remains an emphatic No. (Note to pundits: Please resist the urge to write more “Print isn’t dead!” hot takes.) But publishers didn’t know that in the early digital days.

The words “revolution” and “disruption” get thrown around so often that they’ve lost their punch, but Thompson justifies his use of them here. He recalls the “dizzying growth” of digital books beginning in 2008, “the first full year of the Kindle.” That year alone, ebook sales for US trade titles added up to $69 million; by 2012, they had ballooned to $1.5 billion, “a 22-fold increase in just four years.”

Print, as usual, refused to be superseded. Despite their early boom, ebooks didn’t cannibalize the print market. Thompson uses data from the Association of American Publishers to show that ebooks plateaued at 23 to 24 percent of total book sales in the 2012–’14 period, then slipped to about 15 percent in 2017–’18. Print books, on the other hand, continue to account for the lion’s share of sales, with a low point of about 75 percent in 2012–’14, bouncing back to 80­ to 85 percent of total sales in 2015–’16. (Thompson’s study stops before the 2020–’21 pandemic, but print sales have for the most part been strong in the COVID-19 era.)

For some high-consumption genres, like romance, the ebook format turned out to be a match made in heaven; Thompson notes that romance “outperforms every other category by a significant margin.” But readers in most genres have grown used to choosing among formats, and traditional publishers have for the most part proved able and willing to incorporate those formats into their catalogs. That’s a net gain both for consumer choice and for broader access to books.

. . . .

Thompson quotes an anonymous trade-publishing CEO: “The power of Amazon is the single biggest issue in publishing.”

It’s easy to see why. With its vast market reach and unprecedented access to customer data, Amazon has made itself indispensable to publishers, who rely on it both to drive sales (often at painfully deep discounts) and to connect with readers. For many of us, if a book’s not available on Amazon, it might as well not exist. “Given Amazon’s dominant position as a retailer of both print and ebooks and its large stock of information capital, publishers increasingly find themselves locked in a Faustian pact with their largest customer,” Thompson writes.

That pact has proven hard to break. “Today, Amazon accounts for around 45 percent of all print book sales in the US and more than 75 percent of all ebook unit sales, and for many publishers, around half — in some cases, more — of their sales are accounted for by a single customer, Amazon,” Thompson points out. That’s staggering.

Does Amazon care about books? Not in the way that publishers, authors, and readers do, but that doesn’t change the power dynamic. Amazon derives its power from market share, yes, but also from what Thompson calls “information capital” — namely the data it collects about its customers. That gives it an enormous advantage over publishers, whose traditional business approach prioritizes creative content and relationships with authors and booksellers.

Workarounds to Amazon exist, though not yet at scale. Just as authors have learned to connect with readers via email newsletters and social media, so have publishers been experimenting with direct outreach via digital channels. Email feels almost quaint, but done well it remains a simple and effective way to reach a target audience. Selling directly to readers means publishers can avoid the discounts and terms imposed on them by Amazon and other distributors.

. . . .

Authors can now sidestep literary gatekeepers, such as agents and acquiring editors, and build successful careers with the help of self-publishing platforms and outlets that didn’t exist 20 or even 10 years ago. Self-publishing has become respectable; we’ve traveled a long way from the days when book review editors wrote off self-published books as vanity press projects. Newspaper book sections have mostly vanished, but book commentary pops up all over the internet, in serious review outlets like this one and in the feeds of Instagram and TikTok influencers. It’s a #bookstagram as well as an NYTBR world now. To me, that feels like a win for books, authors, and readers.

. . . .

Some authors hit the big time in terms of sales and readers without relying on a traditional publisher. Thompson returns several times to the example of the software engineer-turned-writer Andy Weir, whose hit book The Martian (2011) got its start as serialized chapters published on his blog and delivered to readers via newsletter. (Newsletters represent another digital-publishing trend unlikely to disappear anytime soon.) “The astonishing success of The Martian — from blog to bestseller — epitomizes the paradox of the digital revolution in publishing: unprecedented new opportunities are opened up, both for individuals and for organizations, while beneath the surface the tectonic plates of the industry are shifting,” Thompson writes.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Book Wars

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 2000 the RAND Corporation invited a group of historians—including me—to address a newly pressing question: Would digital media revolutionize society as profoundly as Gutenberg and movable type? Two decades later, John Thompson’s answer is yes, but not entirely as predicted. And our forecasts were often wrong because we overlooked key variables: We cannot understand the impact of technologies “without taking account of the complex social processes in which these technologies were embedded and of which they were part.”

Mr. Thompson provides that context in “Book Wars” (Polity, 511 pages, $35), an expert diagnosis of publishers and publishing, robustly illustrated with charts, graphs, tables, statistics and case studies. An emeritus professor at Cambridge University, Mr. Thompson published an earlier dissection of that industry, “Merchants of Culture,” in 2010, but now he finds that capitalist landscape radically transformed.

Not long ago everyone thought (or feared) that ebooks would sweep the ink-and-paper book into the recycle bin of history. But they peaked in 2014 at just under 25% of U.S. book sales, then settled back to about 15% in the U.S. and roughly 5% in Western Europe. It turned out that the printed book had unique advantages (easy to navigate, no power source needed, works even if you drop it on the floor). Another consideration is that bookshelves stocked with physical books serve the essential purpose of advertising our literary tastes to visitors. And far from devastating the publishing industry, ebooks boosted their profits even as their revenues remained more or less flat. (Compared to printed books, they are cheaper to produce and distribute, and they don’t burden publishers with warehousing and returns.)

For anyone bewildered by the transformation of the book world, Mr. Thompson offers a pointed, thorough and business-literate survey. He tracks the arcane legal battles surrounding the creation of Google Books, and explains why the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Apple and the Big Five publishers, but not (so far) against Amazon. He rightly regrets the shrinkage of newspaper book reviewing: the first decade of the 21st century saw newspapers from Boston to San Diego pull back on book reviews. That said, Mr. Thompson could have devoted more attention to the rise of reader-written online literary criticism, a populist substitute for the Lionel Trillings and F.R. Leavises of the past.

In spite of worries that small independent booksellers would disappear, they are still with us. But they were challenged in the 1960s by the shopping-mall chains of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, which were superseded by Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores. These in turn were eclipsed by Amazon (founded 1994), triumphing largely because it sold all books to everyone, everywhere. Though we romanticize corner bookstores, they were numerous only in the largest metropolitan centers. In 1928, a city like Cincinnati had seven bookshops. Small-town America bought books at department stores, at pharmacies, or nowhere.

Mr. Thompson insists that “the turbulence generated by the unfolding of the digital revolution in publishing was unprecedented. . . . Suddenly, the very foundations of an industry that had existed for more than 500 years were being called into question as never before.” I would be careful with the word “unprecedented.” Print-on-demand has been with us for some time: the Chinese did it for centuries with woodblocks. The modish practice of crowdsourcing to finance books has a precursor in 18th-century subscription publishing, as readers pledged in advance to buy a forthcoming book. Amazon today dominates bookselling, but Mudie’s Lending Library enjoyed an equally commanding position in Victorian Britain, and raised in its day serious concerns about corporate censorship. (Mudie’s puritanical acquisitions policies meant that novelists like George Meredith were penalized for honest treatment of sex.)

In fact, the 19th century witnessed a transformation of the book business as dizzying as our own: New reproduction technologies dramatically drove down the price of books and increased print runs by orders of magnitude, creating for the first time a global literary mass market, bringing Walter Scott to Japan and Harriet Beecher Stowe to Russia. Today, the absorption of family-owned publishers by conglomerates has raised questions about whether there is still a home for literary and controversial authors with limited popular appeal, but that change was complete before the full impact of digital media. If you’re worried about media concentration (and you should be), the fact remains that all the great Victorian novelists were published by a half-dozen London firms. The desktop computer has vastly expanded opportunities for self-publishers, but there were plenty of them in the past: think of Martin Luther, Walt Whitman, Leonard and Virginia Woolf or countless job-printed village poets and memoirists.

. . . .

While Mr. Thompson is entirely right to conclude that the transformation of publishing in the past 20 years has been bewildering, that’s nothing new. In a dynamic capitalist economy, the dust never settles.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link to the WSJ original. However, PG isn’t sure if there’s a limit on the number of times various visitors to TPV can use the free link and whether the link is geofenced for the US, North America, etc. If the link doesn’t work for you, PG apologizes for the WSJ paywall.)

And thanks for the tip from G and several others.

PG agrees that there have been several disruptive technology changes that have impacted the book business in the past.

However, he doesn’t think that the WSJ reviewer gives adequate attention to the difference between the development of ebooks vs. the various disruptions of the printed book world that preceded it.

No prior technology change immediately opened up the potential audience for a particular book or a particular category of books like ebooks has.

Absent Amazon’s establishment of different book “markets” – US, Canada, Britain, etc., etc., anybody in the world can buy and download an ebook from from anyplace else in the world.

There’s a legal reason (among others) for Amazon’s multiple home pages for books in different countries – the right to publish and sell under an author’s copyright can be sliced and diced by national market. I can write a book and use a UK publisher to publish to the UK market and an American publisher to publish to the US market with each publishing agreement setting bounds on where the publisher can publish and sell the book.

Side note: A long time ago, PG went through the process of signing up for an account on Amazon UK and did so with no problem. He never used the account, but wandered around among the British-English product descriptions and Pound-based prices enough to believe that, particularly for electronic goods, he could purchase and receive anything he liked there. From prior trips to Britain, PG knows his credit cards work just as well for spending pounds as they do for spending dollars.

All that said, any indie author knows how easy it is to simultaneously publish an ebook every place where Amazon sells ebooks.

Other ebook distributors also offer an even broader publish-everywhere feature. PG just checked and Draft2Digital allows an indie author to publish all over the world, through D2D because D2D has agreements with Rakutenkobo, Scribed and Tolino for them to sell an indie author’s book to the zillions of places they’re available.

Rakutenkobo lists its markets as Turkey, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Philippines, Taiwan and Mexico and PG bets readers in other countries can also access the company’s websites, so an indie author has a very easy path to publishing ebooks in each of those places.

So that’s why PG thinks the ebook revolution can’t be easily compared to any prior technology disruption that involved printed books.

Continuing on, after PG read the WSJ review of Book Wars, he immediately went to Amazon to buy the ebook.


Idiotic corporate publishing screwed everything up.

The hardcover edition of the book lists for $29.30 on Amazon and the ebook edition sells for $28.00!

$28 for an ebook!

The publisher is Polity Publishing.

Per Wikipedia, Polity is an academic publisher in the social sciences and humanities that was established in 1984 and has “editorial offices” in “Cambridge (UK), Oxford (UK), and Boston (US)” plus it also has something going in New York City. In four offices, Polity has 39 employees (no mention how many are student employees or part-time contractors).

PG took a quick look via Google Maps Streetview at Polity’s Boston office, located at 101 Station Landing, Medford, Massachusetts. Streetview showed a photo of a multi-story anonymous-looking modern building that could be an office building or an apartment building. PG had never heard of Medford and doesn’t know anything about the community, but on the map, it doesn’t look terribly close to the parts of Boston with which PG has a tiny bit of familiarity.

So, PG doesn’t know how Mr. Thompson, the author of Book Wars chose his publisher, but, in PG’s extraordinarily humble opinion, he made a giant mistake.

A Wall Street Journal review of a book like this should send sales through the roof. Per Amazon, Book Wars is currently ranked #24,220 in the Kindle Store.

Imagine how much better it would sell if it was offered at a reasonable price.