Writing, AI, and Mortality

In an interview with the New York Times this morning, Joyce Carol Oates suggests that the written word provides a form of immortality, one worth making sacrifices in the moment to achieve:

People are seduced by the beauty of the close-at-hand, and they don’t have the discipline or the predilection or the talent, maybe, to say: “I’m not going to go out tonight. I’m not going to waste my time on Twitter. I’m going to have five hours and work on my novel.” If you did that every day, you’d have a novel. Many people say, “I’m going to pet my cat” or “I’m with my children.” There’s lots of reasons that people have for not doing things. Then the cats are gone, the children move away, the marriage breaks up or somebody dies, and you’re sort of there, like, “I don’t have anything.” A lot of things that had meaning are gone, and you have to start anew. But if you read Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Ovid writes about how, if you’re reading this, I’m immortal.

It is this sense that, by writing things down we might achieve for our memories and minds the kind of immortality offered to our bodies by our genes, that perhaps so closely ties the written word to our sense of identity.

This identity connection, then, may also be one of the things that makes us so apprehensive about machines that can write. If my meaning, my memory, is difficult to distinguish in written form than symbols inscribed by a thoughtless computer process, than how will anything of my being survive in writing?

Of course, for writing to be in any sense alive, it must have a reader. Otherwise it’s just dead marks on a page. The reader, though, has to reconstruct meaning for themselves and in a sense they always do it wrong. All meaning making is a form of translation, and while that doesn’t mean all the author’s meaning must always be completely erased (good translations exist) it also means the author’s meaning is never fully revived. Perhaps that is what Foucault meant by the “death of the author.” Ovid is wrong. The reader revives something, but Ovid stays dead.

However, there is an even more dire argument against the notion that writing might help us overcome the horrific ephemeral nature of existence and transcend time and mortality. Namely, most writing is as ephemeral as anything else. It may find a reader or two in the moment it is produced, but then it fades into obscurity and is never read again. Ovid is, in terms of written work, the WWII bomber returning to base with bullet holes showing all the places an epic poem can be shot through by time and still survive. The very, very rare author who spans millennia. Ovid had many contemporaries, some may have even been stars in their day. They are as gone now as anything else.

How long will Joyce Carol Oates last? Who knows. Possibly a very long time! But, she has already done better than the vast majority of her peers. If the internet has taught us anything, it has taught us that there are more people in the world eager to write than there are people to read all the words those eager authors would produce.

So then, let us let go of the notion that writing is immortality, and along with it our desire to have our Authorial Intent recovered in some future time. Let us not worry about AI washing away the words that would have let us live forever. They were always already scrawled on a beach at the edge of the surf. They were going to be washed away, like the rest of us. Make peace with that.

If you want to transcend the measly portion that is our little human lifespan and touch generations to come, let me suggest another approach. Plant a long lived fruit or nut tree. In the northeast US, where I am, apples and walnuts are good choices, they both will run for centuries. A hickory will be around for a very long time, if you want to be a bit less mainstream. If you are lucky enough to live where olives will grow, one of those will last millennia. You could be more immortal that Ovid with an olive, if everything breaks your way.

Pens down. Get planting.

Wordsworth Beach – A Flash Fiction Response to the ‘Again Theory’ Forum

Below is a flash-fiction response to the forum “Again Theory: A Forum on Language, Meaning, and Intent in the Time of Stochastic Parrotsorganized by Matthew Kirschenbaum at Critical Inquiry last week. It imagines what the central metaphor for machine language – poems washing up on a beach – might look like if it actually happened. Spoiler alert: individual interpretations of textual “meaning” are not a very important part of this story.

An AI generated image of text-like characters in sand.
“A photograph of English words written in sand on the beach, on the edge of the surf” as interpreted by Stable Diffusion 2.1

Salvo, North Carolina – It was here, on a distant beach in the Cape Hatteras National Sea Shore, that the brief national sensation that was Wordsworth Beach began.

“I was just out for a jog, and there it was,” remembers Joseph Capisci, “words in the surf. I took a picture and sent it to my brother, I just thought it was cool.”

Things seemed stranger after the next wave.

“The next wave washed ashore, and another poem showed up! I texted my brother another picture. I was like, ‘dude tell me you are seeing this, tell me I’m not having a stroke!’”

“At first I assumed Joe was just pulling my leg,” recalls his older brother Salvatore, “but then I looked the poem up on Google and it was something by Wordsworth. Joe slept through all his English classes, how would he even find something like that.”

The brothers began to text back and forth, speculating about the source of the mysterious words. Salvatore suspected an escaped military dolphin, perhaps one with cybernetic enhancements, might be at play. Joseph, who has a superstitious streak, suspected ghosts. When Salvatore posted a thread of the brother’s discussion to twitter, it went minorly viral, mostly due to Joseph’s contention that “the ghost of Woolworths [sic], is like, poltergeisting the ocean or something.”

This caught the attention of Robert Washington, a North Carolina surf influencer who vlogs under the handle “SandyhairTarheel8121.” In the area recording a series of vanlife and boogie-boarding videos, he captured three stanzas of “The Green Linnet” appearing on the beach and posted the footage to YouTube. The video rapidly gained over thirty million views, and the Wordsworth Beach phenomenon began.

Over the next six weeks, Wordsworth poems washed ashore twice daily on the distant beach, and people thronged the shore to get a look at the mysterious poetry. Video with a poem in the process of appearing became the Must Have Scene for travel and lifestyle influencers. Coca-cola and Buick released ads in which their corporate mottos were worked into Wordsworth poems as they appeared in the sand. UNC Wilmington English Professor Loretta Stevens launched a successful podcast about the poems, but only after pivoting her format to focus less on formal explication of the poems revealed and more on interviews with beachgoers where she asked them why they had made the trip to see the poems on the beach in the first place.

Alongside the influencers came thousands of ordinary people, seeking wisdom from whatever mysterious force was carving words in the sand. Nearby Dare County courthouse in Manteo had a record number of weddings the day “To a Highland Girl” washed ashore. The entire staff of Tricony Capital’s high-frequency trading group, on the beach as part of a retreat package, quit after encountering “The World is Too Much With Us.” Coryn Seuss, a Washington Post correspondent, separated from his wife and declared “my real love is the sea” after encountering “A Complaint” while on assignment reporting on the phenomenon (they have since reconciled).

Then, some six weeks later, the poems stopped appearing as suddenly as they had begun. Two weeks after that, the Streetwise Messaging Collective (SMC), a marketing group specializing in “guerilla marketing” confessed they had been behind the phenomenon. It was part of an advertising campaign to promote the biopic “Wordworth: A Life In Letters,” which went on to win Daniel Day Lewis an Oscar for his portrayal of the poet.

“We were going to do an alternate reality game,” said a source inside the firm, speaking anonymously due to ongoing legal action, “but then we saw that there were all these midget subs being sold off by undersea tourism companies and got this idea.”

Working from subs, teams of guerilla marketers wearing military surplus rebreathers set water soluble type in the sand and high tide. When the tide went out, the words were revealed.

“Wordsworth: A Life In Letters,” had a record-breaking opening weekend and garnered multiple Oscar nominations, but SMC got some blowback for their unconventional marketing technique. Multiple lawsuits from the staff of Tricony Capital allege they are responsible for their lost wages. One couple from Winston-Salem, who conceived a daughter after encountering “Mutability” on the beach, is suing for child support.

Legal council for SMC denies all responsibility. “All my clients did is put poems on a beach,” Michelle Nguyen of NUL Associates stated via email, “whatever actions were taken by individuals based on the meaning they took away from those poems are not something they are liable for. You can’t sue a graffiti artist who leaves the tag “just do it” on an overpass on a day you’re considering quitting your job.”

Despite all the controversy, Joe Capisci and his brother still think the poems they found were a good thing.

“People had a lot of fun with them,” Salvatore said chuckling, “it seemed like magic there for a second, you know? People like that.”