This is becoming the central paradox of the Information Age: the easier it is for humans to create content and information on their digital devices, the more likely it is that robots and online bots will eventually take over the job of creating content and information for those digital devices. In other words, the more we democratize the process of creating content, the more we are planting the seeds for our own future literary demise. Bots are already faster and more efficient than us — now it’s just a matter of time before they’re smarter than us as well. Once you’ve encountered the exponential growth of Big Data on the Internet and pondered the Infinite Monkey Theorem, it’s easier to come to grips with the following conclusion: the Shakespeare of the Future will be a bot.
Think about what passes for “content” these days – the emoticon on Facebook, the 140-character tweet, the 6-second Vine, the +1, or the “like”. Everywhere around us, we are seeing the incredible shrinking of our online literary lives. In the rush to contribute to the Big Data explosion, we are sacrificing quality for quantity. We don’t so much create new content as simply re-blog the content of others — a task so easy these days that it can be done by fake Twitter bots at scale. The content that we do create is becoming shorter, briefer, pithier — and that means that bots can do a lot better job of “spoofing” humans. Maybe one day they’ll pass the Turing Test and we won’t know if content was created by humans or bots.
Desperate to convert “qualitative” data into “quantitative” data that can be crunched by machines and then turned into advertisements, the most “social” of our social networks have become “anti-social.” They are turning philosophically complex status updates about our lives into fill-in-the-blank exercises that free up time for us to share all the other content out there. In the name of democratizing content, we are quickly relegating long-form content to the dustbin of history – just like we did with poetry and other forms of content that just took too much time to learn and appreciate. When it comes to content created for the Internet, you’re lucky if people read the title and the first sentence while staring at the tiny screens of their mobile devices.
And it’s not just easier to create one-off content that sounds reasonably intelligent — it’s easier than ever before to create wonderfully curated packages of content that look a lot like the content of yesteryear. New platforms like Flipboard now allow you to curate your own magazines by “flipping in” content you’ve seen elsewhere on the Interwebs. In less than 30 seconds, you can assemble a visually-compelling online magazine that can be read by thousands of readers (or bots). If you’re lucky, these magazines are “The Best of the Long Reads.” If you’re not so lucky, they are “The Best of the Short Reads” — just more stuff that’s re-blogged, re-tweeted, and re-shared — thrown together in no particular order.
A bot could do better. And maybe they will some day. Keep in mind the Infinite Monkey Theorem.
And, to make matters worse, we’ve accepted the fact that all content today is evanescent and ephemeral, designed to last for a mere seconds before it’s eclipsed by other content in the informational ether. Our streams and flows and feeds have become overwhelming, so we’ve stopped trying to process them altogether. “Social media fatigue” is now a thing. This may be the first time in human history, according to Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books, that society has simply passed on the notion of “literary criticism” – we’re too busy churning out content that we’ve forgotten to think about what we’re doing with all that content:
“… [B]illions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it.”
Moreover, technology has progressed to the point where bots are just as good as humans at creating content. In some cases, such as sports journalism, bots and algorithms are already doing the job of human editors and journalists, reporting the outcomes of sporting events better than their human peers. In other cases, bots are improving to the point where they can do something that humans can not – determine and then create the types of compelling content that’s sure to go viral on the Internet. As a fascinating article about BuzzFeed in New York Magazine pointed out, bots and algorithms are forever blurring the line between journalism and advertising.
You can see where this is going. The Shakespeare of the Future will be a bot because the stories of the future will be data. A rose by any other name… is just data. Maybe that’s why Twitter recently hired its first-ever “data editor” – someone expressly charged with the task of converting all the data created by the Twitterverse into meaningful stories. Thankfully, this “data editor” was a human. The bylines of the future may just be the anthropomorphic identities of really powerful servers and microprocessors, ruthlessly manipulating all the content and information in the exponentially-expanding information soup.
image: Shakespeare / Wikimedia Commons