I don’t think so.

Image courtesy of stockphotosforfree.com

Image courtesy of stockphotosforfree.com

On the way home yesterday, I heard an NPR story about how a computer program at MIT has apparently learned how to “help” an MIT media lab student “compose” a sonnet using a database of Shakespeare’s works.

Including only words used by Shakespeare, the program suggests words that The Bard might have used in “that situation,” or, when writing a sonnet.

The transcript clarifies: “It was [Mathias’] sonnet confined to authentic Shakespearean language. It’s the same predictive software we see when our devices try to finish our sentences and suggest the next word.” Great, so a new application of technology.

But. Apparently Mathias tried to use the same “formula” with works of other poets, but they “were too unpredictable for predictive software to help much.” Isn’t that the point of being a writer and producing new and creative works based on the human condition that other people will read?! Software cannot understand, predict, or reproduce the human condition! (I hope everyone who reads understands how difficult it was for me NOT to type those last two sentences in caps. I had to settle for bold and italic.)

Even more troubling, Mathias went on to say, “We may well see people creating large amounts of automated poetry and then finding out which poems are popular.”


Writing – poetry, novels, short stories, novellas, even, to some extent, nonfiction writing – is based on the human condition! The human condition cannot be automated and reproduced for the purposes of popularity! Not everyone likes Dickens! Not everyone likes Proust, or Austen, or Marlowe, or Shakespeare, or…I could go on forever! That is the way reading and writing works!

Writing is not about popularity, it is about endurance: the endurance of the human condition, of human frailty, of being able to express, communicate, and share that we are all part of something and made for something and we all have, somewhere, somehow, someone that understands us.

Relatedly, this article from the New York Times popped up in my Twitter feed today thanks to Libba Bray:

Again, I was confounded by the idea that people think about fiction this way. Isn’t waiting part of the fun of it? Isn’t it good to, well, have patience, and let a reading sink in before moving on to the next? Part of the fun, for me, at least, is re-reading a book right before its successor arrives. At any rate, Kami Garcia (I’ve read her and Margaret Stohl’s books and enjoyed them, for what it’s worth) and one Twitter user put it much better than I did, as I was so frustrated upon seeing the tweet on the heels of hearing the news story yesterday afternoon, and so I will end with their words instead of mine:

116 thoughts on “I don’t think so.

  1. The “market”, often encourages the worst in human beings. There is nothing wrong with waiting. In fact, delayed gratification is a critical life skill. Don’t get me started about the false god of technology…

  2. One thing that this NPR post doesn’t really mention and that the commentators only hinted at is that predictive text is extremely short-term. It can decide what words shakespeare would use, but what it does not do is DECIDE WHAT HE WAS TRYING TO SAY. So while we can use this software to do something simple like utilize his language, we cannot use this without being experienced in crafting words and sentences to serve as metaphors or parts of a deeper commentary.

    Before I met my step-father, he was a crystal faceter who could turn any piece of crystal into an amazing piece of art. He could visualize exactly where to cut the crystal to create certain shapes of light and color, and his pieces would sell for thousands because of this. In the 1990s he got hired by a company in Thailand to teach their employees how to facet glass and crystal, as well as create designs for a new computerized faceting machine they had in the shop. No matter how many designs he made for them, when they put the design into the computer program and ran the machine on a new piece of crystal, the crystal would never come out like his. They looked good, but they didn’t amaze people and were essentially worthless because of this. Every single crystal was entirely unique and needed its own cut to make it perfect, and while my step-dad could create amazing designs the machine could not replicate the results. I think that is exactly the difference between this poetry machine and an actual poet.

    One good example of what I mean is the supercomputer Deep Blue (or Deep Fritz for more recent uses) which can predict movements linearly simply by placement, but could never tell what a specific player would do like a grandmaster. So the computer can play chess perfectly, but it cannot strategize at all.

    Yes, this technology could be utilized to create something that can out-beat any literary genius in his own language, but what it cannot do is put his thoughts onto paper. At the end of the day, we don’t read a poem because it sounds good, we read it because it is a gateway into the artist’s own mind. (here is a short story to read if you want to see what I mean about why we read what others say or view their work: http://subterraneanpress.com/magazine/fall_2013/the_truth_of_fact_the_truth_of_feeling_by_ted_chiang)

    • Oh I have so many reservations about this it is so hard to begin. First and foremost, copyrights. Clears throat before taking a huge gulp of air. Now then where was I? Copyrights, copyrights and oh yeah: COPYRIGHT, authors rights may be hindered. It’s like having a community book and one of the seven thousand writers decides, hey, I think there is enough here to publish a few books. I’ll just take this bit and that bit and call it mine. This is my initial thought on the idea. Since I’m posting my opinion I think it is only fair of me to get more information about the subject mater and return for further commenting. :)- Sigh.

      • Well onestop, I didn’t say you could just take what others wrote and spin it into a book or poem, I said that the machine could technically do so but it could never put what another person thinks onto paper. Perhaps you are responding to the story itself and not to me?

  3. I couldn’t agree more! Just like walking into a book shop full to the brim with books…nothing’s beats the aroma of freshly pressed ink in books! No matter how technology evolves you can’t compete with the feeling of a novels pages between your fingers. I will always buy my children books from a book shop. There’s a lot to be said about tradition.

  4. I wouldn’t twist my panties over this. It’s more hysterical than anything.

    It’s real simple: linear brains will always get their kicks attempting to systemize non-linear stuff. It’s like a sport for them. It gives them the illusion of control over what seems like random stuff in the Universe, like art and intuition and sex. You know, the stuff that terrifies an engineer. Remember the poetry books in Dead Poet’s Society that attempted to qualify the value of a poem on a graph? Same thing.

    There will always be outsiders to any art that want to organize its mysteries into safer, more recognizable patterns. People do it when they say their pet is smiling, Doctors do it when they say they know what’s best for you. Physicists do it when they argue loudly over which is the right mathematical formula to crack open the creation of the Universe. These are all jokes but only an artistic, intuitive temperament will get the punchline.

    Don’t worry about technology. It’s always trying to come up with powdered water. Science strives mightily to break the mysteries open while the mysteries just sit back and quietly enjoy the show as the centuries roll by. And artists record the punchlines.

  5. is it possible to binge read with so much wasted time in life filled with activities such as work, cooking, eating and sleeping? just imagine how much more could be done without distractions such as those pesky kids we keep having

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  7. I wouldn’t worry much about this craze among software engineers because computers are essentially mechanical. Meaning, whatever is reproduced is in some way a rearrangement of the current. So anyone who rearranges stuff (some artists or product designers maybe?) can easily do this job.

    Computers really become useful when we need them to do the same thing over and over again.

    p.s – a program for this context can’t be used for another.

  8. Yes, writing takes time, but often the business side of the business is what REALLY takes time. I can write 120.000 words in 29 days. And I’m a plotter, so those are not useless words.
    Yes, there’s a merit to waiting, but there’s also a merit to seeing the whole at once, as Edgar Allan Poe pointed out.
    It all depends on the story. To me, the waiting was excessively important for Harry Potter, but I think A Song of Ice and Fire might do with a bit less waiting.

    • Yes, there’s a merit to waiting, but there’s also a merit to seeing the whole at once, as Edgar Allan Poe pointed out.
      It all depends on the story. To me, the waiting was excessively important for Harry Potter, but I think A Song of Ice and Fire might do with a bit less waiting.

      Agree, though I think my main argument is with treating authors as though they are automated machines rather than beings that create people and worlds and things that, quite frankly, the average human cannot.

      • On that note, asimov has a wonderful short story about that: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Someday_(short_story)

        It is about a storytelling bot that can basically spin out stories based on key words to make entirely new ones. The kids eventually get bored with it because it doesn’t create interesting enough stories, and when they leave it begins a story about itself that is entirely too personal. The robot actually gained its ability to tell a unique story through its own abuse and they underestimated its true capabilities. Though to be honest, I think this was social commentary on Asimov’s part, possibly about having to write exactly the same kinds of stories just to keep the audience happy.

      • Interesting! I need to read that. Readers can interpret many stories as social commentary. I think that’s one of the reasons the Humanities are so important – because we learn lessons from one era in the hopes of not repeating the same mistakes in our own time.

        Well, we hope so anyway.

  9. Sacrificing quality for speed? Yeah, you won’t ever see me do that! I think the people wo want to do that have lost sight of something important. Hopefully this won’t catch as a trend.

  10. It is horribly sad that anyone can see writing that way. The emotion of being human is what separates us from the machines. There would be no Chuck Palahniuk or Joy Williams or Tolkien without that. We shouldn’t be trying to duplicate or rush an artist of any type. Their process and work is what sets them apart from those of us that cannot create the way they can.

  11. I’m feeling a lot of fear here, but there isn’t anything to be afraid of. There are two possibilities; either a machine writes better than a human or not. Either we grow as a united collective, and personal writing becomes something purely *personal* or things remain status quo.

    I don’t know, to me this is kind of amazing. If software could recreate the human condition, then its creator is like a god–one we can lay claim to. It’s, like, a whole rung in the ladder of evolution.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d be sad if my own book never went beyond myself, but only because it’s *mine*. I don’t know what I really mean, it’s more of a feeling. Which is all writing. Which is why we read. Which is why machines can’t do it. Which is why it would be awesome if they could.

    I’m sorry if I stepped on any feathers or rustled any toes, it’d just be awesome to have a sentient partner, you know?

  12. My favorite part: “Writing is not about popularity, it is about endurance: the endurance of the human condition…” this is a beautiful piece.

  13. I get where you’re coming from, but this is not automated poetry we’re talking about here. In fact, this is really nothing different, and I’m not even kidding – NOTHING different from a digital thesaurus which will give you suggestions for the work you’re looking for while you’re typing. This type of technology already exists and is utilized by writers the world over, the only difference is instead of the known English, Spanish, Japanese, or Klingon language, the program is using Shakespearean language, which is essentially a subset of Elizabethan English as defined by the text of the bard’s noble work.

    • I understand that but my concern came from this:

      “We may well see people creating large amounts of automated poetry and then finding out which poems are popular.”

      I know his software only suggested Shakespeare’s words the way a thesaurus would – but the implication that he would potentially use it (or something like it) to mass-produce poetry is troubling.

      • You know, I didn’t get the impression that he was saying that HE was going to do that, just that he saw the potential for it, and if something is popular enough, someone will use it for something other than it’s design.
        And while that sucks, what are these folks really going to turn out? Essentially a heartless, soulless facsimile.
        What is there to be afraid of? That a program might manage to create something that’s actually good? It’s not very likely, and if it manages to “make art”, which I find highly unlikely, it will certainly be worth seeing.

      • Fair point :). I interpreted it as him saying that people could use the software to mass-produce, which of course to your point, would result in a “soulless facsimile.”

        In that case, not a thing to be a afraid of – except spiders.

  14. I am waiting for the day that the computer writes the book and another computer edits it and another reads it and writes a review. In all no one alive reads the book. What is the satisfaction, is it the eating of air that makes the mouth water when there is no mouth?

  15. When I read a poem I always try to put my heart, means my emotions , feelings, frustration to capture the feelings of the writer which is located in the heart of the poetry. I think the only way to produce this kind of literature is through energy of life , that none of the computer programs can hold it.

  16. The idea of reading a book that was partly written by a piece of software really puts me off. It loses all of it’s authenticity. I completely agree that disliking a book does not mean it’s a bad book. It can just mean that it’s not of interest to you in particular but might be to others. That’s the beauty of literature. There’s variety and richness, not just some commercialised spewing of “popular” plots. Thanks for the post, it was really interesting!

  17. Hmmm. Technology is scary… the only way I could see this being useful is in the realm of college textbooks. New information could be added to a stockpile of old info and teaching phrases, then mechanically compiled into the new edition. If it’s automatically generated, it might be cheaper when teachers insist upon students having the newest text edition!

  18. very well work done…keep going…i liked it…its nice…as am a new blogger in this world and i wrote just 1 blog (story) (http://mindtechnorms.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/when-god-granted-tittus-to-go-to-earth-for-1-day-part-i/) and unable to find my viewer as like you, can u please help me by reading my 1st blog what wrong with my writing…is really something wrong with my writing or am just expecting too early…your helpful comments will really inspire me… and please follow me…

  19. Pingback: The Creation of Worlds | theauthorwhoknows

  20. Really enjoyed reading this and the commentary! I made it only 1/3 through the comments, maybe someone’s touched base on what I’m saying already. This kind of technology can make us anxious because the notion people tend to get is, at a basic level, automation and artifice replacing human creative agency. No matter what, even if used to auto-generate poetry and fiction, the value of the content, the meaning, cannot be constructed in ways that would be as compelling as what a person with talent and inspiration would write without it, or what they would write merely using it as a tool. Without the emotion, sense of experience, and desires that are unique emergent properties of a living mind, it would boil down to a linguistic experiment that may produce interesting results, but without knowing the novelty of ‘this was written by a toaster’ where does it go? It’s something that would never be able to go beyond that of a very sophisticated linguistic swiss army knife, and maybe at best be an interesting way to interact with the process of writing instead of a threat to it. So long as it has an off button and can’t physically reproduce, I think writers can rest at ease that they’ll always continue to make less money and write better content than programmers.

  21. At the end of the day it’s just an interesting experiment. Anyone worried that machines will replace writers need only look at an average day’s worth of comment spam to see that computers may know how to use words, but plainly they cannot write.

  22. I believe most nonfiction writing is based on the human condition as well, even if it’s a book about learning to program PHP. It’s just more subtle about it. 😉

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