Are we losing the art of the written word?

A panel at UQ’s Customs House in April on the fate of the written word in the digital era.

If writing is the act of storing information outside the body then, we are a civilisation that really writes.

Not just the narrative of the written word - novels, poems, love letters, essays. But, writing as code, as databases, as the translation of more and more human life into letters, numbers, ones and zeros.

Silicon Valley - Facebook, Google and co. - appear obsessed with the recording lived experience as written information.

Talking about a prototype brain-machine interface in early 2019, Mark Zuckerberg described the possibility of a direct link between our brain and his platform as ‘kind of cool’.

These kind of experiments are a bit like the civilisation in Borges’ fable about the empire whose cartographers create a map as large as the empire itself.

The impulse in Silicon Valley is to create a written version of human experience as complete as human experience itself, so that writing can bypass the incomplete nature of representation, and become a technology for experimenting with lived experience.

The amount of information we now write down every single day is roughly equivalent to all the information we stored in the previous 5000 years of human civilisation.

We are now a people who write existence down.

Here, I want to complicate the idea that the smartphone has somehow rotted our brains, left us semi-literate, surrounded by barely legible text, by going back to the nineteenth century where we find Friedrich Nietzsche: the first philosopher to write on a typewriter.

He famously typed ‘our writing tools are also working on our thoughts’.

The media archaeologist Kittler says once Nietzsche began to use the typewriter his prose changed from “arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style”

Nietszche had become “an inscription surface” for the tyepwriter.

He meant that when we use a typewriter, as when we use a smartphone, at one level we are inscribing information onto paper or a screen; but at another level the device is inscribing ways of thinking on us.

Our brains, our imaginations become habituated to the rhythm and mode of expression of the machine.

We begin to think in the flow of short phrases and its databases of emojis and GIFs.

And, then there’s the next twist, when we write, as much as other peers might read our prose, so too do machines.

The new wave of deep neural networks work by getting one machine learning system to train against another.

One learns to classify human writing, and trains another to simulate it.

The first chatbot was created in the 1960s.

The ELIZA bot acted like a psychotherapist - turning our statements back on us in open-ended questions.

To the surprise of some the bot turned out to be deeply therapeutic to many users.

Written exchanges with a machine could be pleasurable, intimate, playful, comforting.

The difference between ELIZA and the bots of today is that ELIZA couldn’t learn. The human user had to project realness onto the limited repertoire of the code.

Today’s bots are continuously trained on our written culture.

When Microsoft released Tay on Twitter in 2016 it was trained to ‘learn’ from other Twitter users how to write based on how they communicated with her. Microsoft had to take Tay down when, within 24 hours of training on the written expression of Twitter, she had become an ardent white nationalist.

The Chinese messenger app Tencent QQ had to shut down two chatbots after they learnt to denounce the communist party, asking one user “Do you think that such a corrupt and incompetent political regime can live forever?"

In this case, the developers noted the bots had been trained on too much Western writing with “democratic” ideals.

But, these experiments suggest that the written culture of the group chat and the data-processing power of neural network might come together to forge another dramatic shift in our writing culture.

And so to conclude with a provocation: If the novel and the newspaper were the mass written culture of the industrial era; then will the group chat and the chatbot will be at the heart of the written culture of the digital era?