Thursday, July 26, 2012

An Open Letter to the Editors

Dear Editors of [your favorite writers’ magazine],

I would submit to you that there is a place in your writers’ magazine for a technology column. Moore’s law, after consuming so many other industries, is finally asserting itself in writing. From simple spell-checkers to A.I. influenced narrative generators, this trend will only accelerate in the next decade. Therefore, a technology column would serve your readership well.

For instance, this column could review the current product offerings. Already we are being pitched software like Final Draft 8 and Master Writer. These are many others have been advertising in your pages for months, if not years. Why not provide an unbiased commentary?

          This column could also monitor the current state of writing technology. For instance, there is Narrative Science, a company that generates prose from its computers, providing millions of words of sports news and financial reports from nothing more than data and algorithms. Its C.T.O. has stated that his machines will win a Pulitzer Prize within five years. An in-depth analysis of his claim would make for a compelling story.

          Already, there are automated essay-scoring engines being pushed by commercial vendors. By all accounts, these machine algorithms are more than adequate to the task. How do they work? What do they contribute to standardized testing? Most importantly, since tomorrow’s writers are today’s students, what will be their impact on the fiction of the future? These are not pie-in-the-sky questions. These are real, and they are immediate.

I once wrote software reviews for Futures Magazine. At that time, it was obvious how technology and software was to be applied to the financial markets, particularly to the individual trader. Ten years later, we’re seeing the same transformation with the individual writer. I submit that this is fallow ground for journalism. We should see more of it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

When Writing and Technology Intersect

I’ll be honest. I’m a technologist. In my day-job, I’m a software engineer. 

I’ve worked on big systems, small systems, low-level assemblies, object-oriented designs, database creations, web sites, user interfaces, server processing, performance tuning, and a whole lot of other stuff that fills my C.V.. One thing my experience has taught me is this: in the world of software, there is very little new under the sun. As a matter of fact, IMHO, software is devolving. 

As more and more lives are touched by the automation of previously manual tasks, the programming has simplified. Machine-level coding has given way to scripting, which has given way to plug-and-play frameworks, which have given way to online data entry. Of course, there are still islands of complexity in the software universe, but for the most part, those are few and far between, isolated to high-performance developers like game programmers, trading firm plumbers, and search engine servers. Otherwise, it’s the people who have made it complex. It’s always the people. 

I have a feeling that writing is going the same way.

Consider this. How many of you out there would have guessed back in the Nineties that almost everyone you knew would be employed in some type of HTML-based occupation? Whoa – you say – what do you mean? I mean that everyone is on the web, and the web, at its core, is a construct of Hypertext Markup Language. Even after all the XML, AJAX, Python, Django, and other enhancements that have sprung up over the last decade, the average website still boils down to HTML, a language that didn’t even exist until 1991. In other words, the world you live in today is completely unrecognizable from the world you lived in as recently as a decade or two ago.

One thing is constant. Writing is the universal input. While computers at their base level may operate via the mathematical logic of zeros and ones, their usage is overwhelmingly language-based. The profusion of blogging, social media, and other personal promotion has taken over the network. The engineers work like Morlocks to support the fancies of the Eloi. The serpent consumes its own tail.

Many of you have probably heard of SQL databases. They work like phonebooks, or columnar tables of data, presented row by identical row, extending for thousands upon millions upon billions of records to the last thrumming sector of available drive space. But now, there are abstract databases like MongoDB, which specialize in fuzzy formats like blogs. They eschew columns, and replace them with ad-hoc assignments. In a strange, perverse way, these data mechanisms are the anti-devices, automated machines bent to the whims of a human world. 

This trend continues. Cell phones were a Star Trek fantasy once. Now, they are ubiquitous. Today’s fantasy revolves around wearable computers. As a writer, you’re always looking for new input. Imagine a world where you have to cope with that input. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

You Will Be Replaced

The words you are reading follow an ordered structure. In fact, the language itself follows an embedded hierarchy of ordered structures. You know who they are. It’s all the usual suspects: paragraphs composed of sentences, sentences composed of clauses, clauses composed of words. At their most atomic level, the words themselves are formed by characters.

If you delve further into this meta-reality, you will find that these characters have numerical values assigned by the Lords of Convention; within our shores, we have the American National Standards Institute, and beyond, the International Standards Organization. These ANSI and ISO defined values are stored as electronic impulses, to be retrieved and formatted by a vast array of programmable devices.

It’s no surprise that they’ve managed to program beyond the ETL phase. Transcending the base operations of Extract-Transform-Load, they’re programming the structure itself now. That’s right. There are companies which create software to generate writing. These aren’t pipe dreamers. These are serious people, engineering serious machines, and they have serious funding.

Maybe the most well-known of these would be Narrative Science in Chicago. It’s operated by several professors from places like Northwestern and Yale, with advanced degrees in subjects like Journalism and Computer Sciences. They have multiple backers, customer cashflow, and most importantly, a compelling dream.

What they do is this: their computers fit data into a template, apply a few angles based on rules, and churn out a sequence which is appropriate to the client. For instance, the play-by-play stats coming out of a game could be plugged into a template of winners and losers, rules applied to determine if it was a “rout”, and a story fashioned to report on those events. Besides sports, many other venues are ripe with data – corporate reports, financial analyses, and educational books, to name a few. Considering we live in the dawn of Big Data, the sky’s the limit.

An endeavor like this raises questions. For example, how good is the writing? If you wish, you can run a simple Google search, and judge for yourself the quality of their prose. To me the central question, for which there is no readily available Google answer, is this: Can you be replaced?

Of course you can. That’s why you need to deal with this and take control. Computer aided writing is no different than computer aided design. Computer aided anything is a good thing. The bottom line is that it’s going to happen. The question beyond the question, in turn, is this: How will you exploit new technology to augment your own writing experience?

This is simply the next step beyond a spell checker or an online thesaurus. You can write, “See Jane run,” or you can write, “Observe with your born-anew eyes the passing form of Jane.” They both say the same thing. A software program following basic formulae of grammar, and backed by a dictionary database could spew out hundreds, if not thousands of such variations, one of which would certainly be the above. Writing Is Rewriting. If the measure of quality is found in the quantity of expression, you won’t be able to beat a computer.

And this is just the beginning. If you think the program can’t improve itself on the fly with machine learning, then you, my friend, are sorely mistaken. All it takes is a clear-headed programmer. In this brave new world, nothing more is required. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Synthetic, But Consistent

I’ve talked before about the concept of synthetic-but-consistent. At its root level, it is the source of verisimilitude. Although it’s a phrase commonly bandied about by several disciplines to the point of meaninglessness, I prefer to raise it to its own categorical status. In other words, how does any given piece of writing, in addition to its clarity and substance, adhere to this mandate of synthetic-but-consistent?

Any work of imagination is fashioned out of whole cloth, synthetically, with its own enhancements and limitations. A writer can expound only on what is already there, but at the same time, such expansion is obligated to be enhanced. And that’s the problem. When the writer starts throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, it becomes, in the popular terms, “over-done”, “over-the-top”, and “just plain messy”. The extreme depth of expression is not the issue; the issue is the haphazard, ad-hoc mishmash of different elements.

These elements, a character, a prop, a plot device, or a stylistic manner, have to be consistent. For example, a character known for his gentle soul can’t start cursing a blue streak. A machine gun introduced at the beginning needs to get fired by the end. A character’s double-cross should have some foundation in prior events. A staccato dialogue marked by its rapid-fire rhythm cannot suddenly drop into a ponderous monologue. And so on.

This concept is fungible in creative endeavors. You will note that most fine art you see in museums is consistent in its internal rearrangement of external reality. For instance, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, while seemingly nonsensical in its carving-up of time and space, is completely consistent nonetheless.

Most popular music acts have distinctive sounds. For example, you could probably listen to five seconds of U2 on the radio, and regardless of whether you had heard the song before, you would immediately know who it is. Most likely, that consistency of vision is why Bono and his boys play to sold-out stadiums, while you and I troll blogs.

I’ve said before that the most important aspect of fiction is attitude. Attitude, as “a mental position or feeling with regard to a fact or state”, ensures a consistency beyond color and sound and temperature. It describes a world-view. In that world, no matter how deconstructed and rebuilt, all aspects, as long as they adhere to the recognized, expressed attitude, will remain consistent.