This Week in Anxious Rambles: The Future of Writing


Unsolicited Opinions / Thursday, October 11th, 2018

Sometimes I think about dead careers. Like lamplighters, for instance. Did they envision an electric future where no one would need to tend streetlights? Did they all heave a collective sigh when the first bulbs went mainstream? See their demise in the long shadows of the lampposts?

As a content writer for brands and a wannabe fiction writer for humans, I can’t help but wonder about the future of my career. Will AI soon be able to write the short content I write, but better, faster, and cheaper? Does anyone want to read my sort of fiction anyway? What’s the future of writing? (Disclaimer: I have no idea and emphatically don’t answer any of my own questions in this post).

***

Yesterday, I was talking to a younger friend of mine. At 21, she’s one of the most brilliant people I know: creative, perceptive, artistic. Loves telling visual stories with her camera, and can definitely recognize good stories when she sees them.

She generally prefers to engage with visual storytelling, while I opt for the boring old written word.

Our conversation highlighted a point for me: engagement with reading is changing drastically from generation to generation. And the type of writing that I like to read and create is passing quietly into obsolescence, leaving an audiovisual-driven storytelling culture ascendant. Meanwhile,  a bunch of sad Millenials like myself sit in dim rooms, clutch dry old books to our chests, and wonder how the fuck Snapchat works.

Or I’m being dramatic.

But for the sake of letting me work through my feelings, I’m gonna finish my tangent. So, the friend I was speaking to? Born in late 1996, she’s practically a dinosaur of Generation Z while I, born in early 1991, am sort of a “young” Millennial. Our generations are close enough that we have a lot of the same cultural influences, but separate enough that we engage in storytelling & media in drastically different ways.

Here’s where I talk about Generation Z

Gen-Z thinks Facebook is lame, preferring the brevity of Twitter and the visuals of Instagram. Though some studies show that 77% of Gen-Z people prefer reading print materials (encouraging), The Guardian likes to publish grim articles about how as a society we no longer have the attention span to do anything more than skim-read (discouraging).

According to Maryanne Wolfe’s article, we have a “reading circuit” in our brains that isn’t hardwired into us, but that is produced from the way we’re educated and how we engage with reading. So now that we’re reading things in short bursts online and skim reading articles, we’re actually changing the circuitry of our brains. She posits that not only does this impact the way we interact with deep, tangled works of fiction; it also interferes with the development of empathy and analysis. And it sucks for English teachers:

English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19thand 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts.

The worst thing is, I get it. I’ve tried and failed to read Moby Dick like a million times. And the things that I used to be able to get through, like Cormac McCarthy’s dense prose in Blood Meridian, would now be difficult for me. And I’ve definitely been reading more short stories than novels, out of convenience.

So even though you have Gen-Z people saying that they prefer reading in print, this goes beyond the old print vs. eBook debate. It’s a deeper question: what do we actually have the attention span to consume, as a culture? And how will this impact writers and readers?  Take, for example, Hooked, the self-professed “Future of storytelling,” which delivers text-message-style, easily-digested interactive stories to 40 million people. (Ashton Kutcher is behind it all. I might have known.)

The Hooked stories are sort of punchy, very simply-written stories told in plain language. There’s nothing awful about it, but the stories sort of…how do I say this without sounding like a huge freakin’ snob? Nevermind. I can’t say it without sounding like a bougie asshole so I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.

I think it’s dumb and alarmist to say that people in Generation-Z don’t read books anymore. And it’s condescending to suggest that people in younger generations are stupid because of the different ways they engage with storytelling (looking at you, Will Self).

People will always read. It’s just possible that novels and short stories will move even more to the peripheral of media consumption as our culture shifts the way it chooses to engage with stories.

Here’s where I talk about my robot anxieties

So maybe people are getting less and less inclined to read long, complicated novels. But maybe it doesn’t matter anyway, BECAUSE ROBOTS. You heard me: novel-writing, content-spewing, story-telling, dream-stomping robots are on the scene.

So yeah, not only am I sitting over here wondering how I can turn my weird, wondering, totally-not-snappy trilogy into something that appeals to the Hooked generation, I’m worried about robots, too. And btw, Elon Musk is worried too:

“At least when there’s an evil dictator, that human is going to die. But for an AI, there will be no death — it would live forever. And then you would have an immortal dictator from which we could never escape.”

And I thought I was dramatic!

But seriously. The depth at which we engage in stories is changing, and technology is advancing so quickly that it might not even matter anyway! AI is already writing stuff:  If you’re curious, go check out Articoolo, where a robot will happily write you a dumb article on your dumb topic. It’s not thought leadership, by any means. But you can generate 100 articles a month. For $49. Wow.

Companies like The Washington Post use its robot friend, Heliograph, to write short articles, sports recaps, and social media posts. Mostly, the content is so low-level they wouldn’t pay human beings to do it anyway. But it’s just the beginning.

AI can already do some wild things, like analyze long texts and then create “unique” content based on the words it finds. (If you’re interested, there’s an entire Fifty Shades generator that does this and it is a really awesome combination of raunchy and ridiculous.)

Machines are capable of “deep learning,” where they can anticipate what comes next in a written style. According to this article, it’s sort of an elevated form of AI knowing what comes next when you’re writing an email. Except like, for the length of a novel. (Check out Botnik Studio’s computer-generated episode of Scrubs via Twitter for a lol).

Already, there are hundreds of thousands of computer-generated books available on Amazon.

Right now, a machine can’t write a novel without significant human assistance. And the novels they write, even then, aren’t that good. And doesn’t it seems absolutely absurd? The idea that AI could soon come up with unique novels?

But, like, Mr. Joe Lamplighter probably never envisioned a future where his job would be taken over by freakin’ LIGHT BULBS.

Here’s where I talk about impermanence

Despite all this, I’m not scared. First of all, lamplighting and writing are pretty different.  Secondly, I’m too ignorant about generational shifts and AI to feel certain there’s any cause for concern at all.

I’m steeling myself for changes in reading and writing while still remaining hopeful. Like, is it possible that very few people in the upcoming generation will be at all interested in the rambling trilogy I’m writing? Yeah. And is it probable that in a few years the content writing I do for brands and businesses will be easily overtaken by machines? Sure

And is it possible that robots will become sentient a la Westworld and be capable of  writing unique and brilliant novels and totally nudge me and all my dreams out of the way? Sure. (But I think by that point, I’d have something worse to worry about bc sentient robots don’t bode well in general).

And perhaps all of this alarmist, everyone’s-brains-are-jelly and the-robots-are-coming-to-get-you nonsense is just that: alarmist nonsense. Things change. People change. Demographics shift.

All I know is that I’m about to get deep with this Buddhist quote:

Impermanent are all component things,

They arise and cease, that is their nature:

They come into being and pass away,

Release from them is bliss supreme.

I can’t control the future of writing, reading, and media. I can’t ensure that there’s a market for everything I want to write, that my freelance career is impervious to change in readership & robots, or that anyone’s even gonna wanna read anything in twenty years. Because nothing lasts, everything changes, and if you want to feel supremely blissed out, just do what you truly enjoy in the moment and stop looking over your shoulder for AI and shifts in the market and changing values in reading.

Just keep writing.

15 Replies to “This Week in Anxious Rambles: The Future of Writing”

  1. The whole ‘people don’t read anymore’ is one of the reasons I decided to focus on television instead of writing for my thesis. I was increasingly wondering why I should bother figuring out how to write most effectively about the environment, if fewer and fewer people care about good writing anymore? It is sad, but as you indicated there’s not much we can do about it.

    1. I completely understand your focus on television: especially since your goal is ultimately to educate and raise awareness, you need to be able to speak to people in the medium that they’re most comfortable with.

      I often wonder how I’m going to adapt my writing to fit changes in reading demographics or evil dictator robots (heh), but for the time being I;m just going to keep scribbling along like the dinosaur that I am.

  2. Rest assured, the GGR is coming. The great global reset will arrive within your lifetime. It will probably come in the form of a CME. But may come, but unlikely, as an asteroid, plague or destabilizing war. But it will come. Then lamplighters will be back in biz. Seriously, a CME is going to wipe out technological humanity. Just a matter of time. So, don’t care for snapchat or whatagram? Just wait.

    1. What’s a CME? If you don’t tell me, I’ll just embark on a Googling frenzy ha. So does that mean writing’s not going anywhere? Or that we’re all doomed and it doesn’t matter anyway?
      I really feel like I could make a future for myself as a lamplighter…

      1. I often reflect on technological advance and humanity’s increasing time spent on idle pursuits. Imagine a fully automated world, what would 80% of the population end up doing? Consume virtual entertainment that the other 20% produced I imagine.
        At least when the world was simpler (and yes, brutal, beastly and short) people did stuff. Worked at things, accomplished tasks. Today? Oohwee I beat a candycrush level, I gained a life in WOW, I played computer games until my brain bled. Gee, how noble and productive.

        1. I think if we had a fully automated world (after a period of intense adjustment) we might switch over to a UBI system. I like to think that getting a universal base income would empower people to engage in the sorts of creative pursuits that they currently don’t have the time or energy for because they spend 8-10 hours out of each day working at jobs they hate.

          I guess it could go either way. Excessive free time could lead to intellectual laziness I guess. Or it could lead to people pursuing things they’ve always been interested in, but never had the time to do: crafting, gardening, cooking, creating, increased intra- and interpersonal development?

          1. One might hope. I tend to remind myself during examinations like this that half of the world’s population has an IQ < 100. This is just a statistic, but most likely has an impact on the outcome of who does what in a post resource-bottleneck world.
            It's too bad Hans Rosling is gone. I'm sure he'd have some fascinating charts he could construct to help us predict such a future.

  3. I’m not as anxious as you are, I think, though I did get a 1-star review for a book that basically said, “I scanned the whole book and didn’t understand it.” Well, duh! Ha ha. Perhaps computers will be able to write technical how-to books and compendiums, but I doubt they will be able to match the richness of human emotion, soul, and creativity, especially when the 3 are combined. And regarding length, Harry Potter is an example of “big” books that people still read by the millions. Good storytelling will outlive the fads, I believe, and will determine where reading ends up as a pastime. Just watch the pendulum swing the other way… when turning off technology and reading immersive books will be the new thing. We can hope, anyway.

    1. Oh my goodness. I am extremely irked on your behalf towards the 1-star-scanner!!

      I really enjoyed your comment and the hopefulness that you convey towards the power of immersive reading. Because in my heart of hearts, it’s what I want to truly believe: that we value deep human connection and complex stories too much to just become a culture of skim-readers.

      I enjoyed writing this post as an outlet for my anxieties, but you’re absolutely right: we’re very far from the type of AI that would make novel writers obsolete, and it’s overly simplistic to think that the younger generations won’t want to engage with longer reads.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

      1. I just laugh at the one-star scanner and hope that others will too when they see the review. It’s part of an author’s life. Yes, be hopeful! There are millions of books and billions or readers. 🙂 It’s all good.

  4. hehe yeah I have robot anxiety too 😉 But I love what you said about impermanence- that’s a really good way to look at it (and also a lot less scary than “the robots are coming!! *FREAK OUT*” 😉 )

    1. Haha yes – I can’t let myself look up too many Elon Musk quotes about robots or I get skeeved. But everything is so transient and we have so little control that I think it’s better for us to just keep on writing. And occasionally anxiety-vent on our blogs haha.

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