FULL BLEED: ALGORITHM FALL DOWN
This is probably going to be one in a series of rants, for lack of a better word, on the new Current Situation, which is pretty much the old one just made much much worse.
Before I continue, as this is largely about a group of phenomena often called AI or AI-assisted creation, I'm going to break down some terminology. I have strong feelings about the subject, yet I will attempt to retain some degree of objectivity.
AI is a misnomer. There is no intelligence in these systems. They are relatively clever scripts that take both publicly-available content from the internet as well as a vast collection of copyrighted material that has been strip-mined as source material for "training" these scripts how to generate content. In many cases, the results look like traces, particularly in terms of staging and the barebones layout of these images. Now, to some degree, that's because what they were "trained" on used solid design fundamentals to make interesting images.
In my own view, the process takes previously-created output and mulches it into something that appears to be novel. Mulching itself is probably a word that I ripped off from Bruce Sterling, who is a much more fair-handed and sanguine observer of the processes at work. A significantly better writer and technologist too.
Oh, I almost forgot. This content is never purely machine generated. The stuff that it produces, based on the work of millions of hours of human work, itself has to be massaged and checked and tweaked by human operators, mostly overseas, mostly grossly underpaid and exploited. It's the Mechanical Turk all over again (real quick - The Mechanical Turk being a curiosity of times past passing itself off as a mechanical device but in reality being operated by a human hidden in the works simply because no machine could do these things.) So, yes, the machine is "making" stuff that is modified and adapted from human work, fixed by human work. Often created with a specific bit of text that asks the machine to use a particular artist's stylistic markers and look.
Ethically, it's a mess. Yes, me talking about ethics in the creation of art in the marketplace of today is pretty laughable, I know. Mostly because nobody cares about the ethics of the marketplace. Most readers and viewers simply don't care under what conditions the things they consume are produced. Asking them to is probably silly. I only think about it because I flirted with making a living in that world, and at times have been paid pretty well to be part of it. Nothing lasts.
So you have an audience that ultimately doesn't care about how what it consumes is produced. Well, say hello to the army of dudes who don't care about producting anything but money (and prestige, but I'll get to that one later.)
See, there's a whole group of dudes who are really not only interested but desperate to make these tools make money, and they're mostly gonna make money by selling these tools to other dudes who want to write and draw and make videos and memes and don't care enough about the results to acutally learn the process. The creators of these programs want to profit off the dudes who boast about taking six hours out of their weekend to put together a children's book by typing lines of text into a program and having it spit out illustrations. Six hours. Can you imagine the sacrifice?
Of course, these dudes can't really sell this to anyone unless it's got proven bona fides that it'll work. That these programs will unleash their unlimited creative vision and make a beautiful product that consumers will line up to read. To do that, there has to be a success story with these content mulchers, something to prove that yes, they make workable content, desirable content, tasty content with the right kind of flavor crystals on it to make the ganglia twitch.
Which brings me to what happened with Clarkesworld this week. Clarkesworld, if you're not familiar, is a science fiction genre magazine, publishing short stories. Last week, they posted about how their submissions portal was being inundated with machine or script-generated content. And yes, you can tell, mostly because the words that these systems spit out are... they're not good. (The visual content is trickier simply because it's easier to fool our pattern-recognition systems into filling in the rest of a visual image, making us think it means something.) Text is a complicated thing. Particularly since the marketplace for these short stories are pretty dedicated readers. They're tougher to fool than, I dunno, middle-managers who think mulching systems are a great way to write quarterly reports (and they may well be -- I'm not denying that script generation will have a place in dry, coroporate and scientific text presentation.)
Clarkesworld felt it necessary to shut down electronic submissions because they were getting clobbered by push-button content, so much so that actual human-written submissions were being choked out and deprived oxygen, metaphorically speaking. Well now, they're wholly being deprived oxygen. This will be the first of these such closures, but not the last.
Why? Because it's too labor-intensive to sort these submissions out immediately. Sure, once you find a script-mulch story, you can ban the submitter's address, etc. But that's laborious. And the thing is, anyone with access to these systems can wipe out a submissions portal in short order. It's asymmetrical warfare. It's spawning hundreds or thousands of submissions with very little work (note, I will not call these stories because stories are written by humans and if this makes me a chauvinist, I guess I am.) So, spawned submissions versus human readers is not much of a fight.
What happens, however, if the portal doesn't care about the quality of work and is happy to just publish these submissions? Let's look at Amazon. And they will, like it or not, come to a point and probably soon where they either have to ban machine-generated submissions OR charge some amount of money to publish a work (even a token amount) OR they will risk the algorithms, their recommendation engines, being overwhelmed and offering up keyword-filled crap non-story content simply because someone with access to a text mulching service wrote up "A Sherlock Holmes story with Cthulhu and Moriarty teaming up." There's audiences for all those keywords. They might even click on it and eat it up. Or they're going to see that these submissions are terrible and begin to lose faith in the recommendation engine.
Right now, these mulching services are not being widely utilized. That's right now. It won't take long for the grifter class to move in. Grifters have already made Amazon a wasteland with content-free books and the like. Go ahead and look up passive income schemes where you don't even have to write a book. They're out there. I even get recommended them on my Insta feed because of what? The algorithm. You bet.
I'm not arguing that the sky is falling. Mostly 'cause it's already fallen. We're already living in a shattered publishing landscape. Yes, lots of people can make a living or supplement their incomes with writing. There's thousands more trying to get in every day, though, all of varying quality levels and experience levels. The fact of the matter is that submissions for all manner of genre magazines are being clobbered by folks who are actually writing and wanting to be published, much less dudes who are trying to score a win for their scripting systems and getting something published, because publishing means prestige.
Yeah, I told you I'd get back to prestige, didn't I? Because the prestige of being a published writer is what a lot of publishers are paying in. It sure as heck isn't money. I'm not even talking about the genre anthologies who offer a penny a word or a contributor copy as payment for a ten thousand word story. It goes all the way up. And honestly, publishers can afford to pay very little because they're paying back in confirmation of identity. In prestige. Because if you've been published by someone else, you're lifted out of the self-publishing wasteland and can be talked about in blogs and book tours and in Publisher's Marketplace.
Oh yeah. Book tours. You know, where you pay someone to arrange for you as an author to appear at various blogs and podcasts and there your book is promoted. Yeah. Book tour companies won't take you as a self-published author. Check right there in their policies. Your money's not good. Because it doesn't have prestige with it.
Sorry, I wandered off the track there. I was supposed to be talking about generated content and what it means for creation in the future.
We're already in a place where only folks who have the free time to work for a little pay as writing generally provides will be able to do this full-time. Most folks who write, even books for larger genre publishers, they're doing writing as a side gig because no insurance, no pay, no stability. Some folks are getting by on the outskirts, self-publishing on *ahem* Amazon because they've found a way to make it work. What happens when that doesn't? When they have to swim against the flood of material that's being put out there?
Reminder, a quick search reveals that there's something like a million books a year put on Amazon.
One. Million. That's around three thousand a day, just under.
How do you build an audience in that manner of howling pit?
What happens when larger publishers have to fight against near-copycat works from fly by night operations? They'll spend money shutting operations down, operations that are cheaper to re-open than keep fighting.
I'm looking down the road some and nothing I see is encouraging. I'd love to be wrong. But we're in an arms race over money, and as we've seen, people will do really really dumb and short-sighted things in the pursuit of money. Hell, just now I saw that Warners is going to commission a bunch of new Lord of the Rings movies. Now this is dovetailing from AI content, but let's push that just a little. They'll get humans to write this. How long until they decide that they only want humans to sort of refresh and punch up the generated content stories these things will be based on?
Yeah, the bottom line is a harsh mistress.
I'm just imagining how only folks who really really want to and can afford to will actually be writing new books. I'm not talking about generating new content that is all vaguely familiar on pre-cut templates of accepted genres and tropes and checklists and having the right flavor crystals. I'm talking about new books, ones that come from a lifetime of reading and synthesizing new ideas out of old, not simply tracing over them. I'm thinking about the lonely and monastic work, not the performative social media presence work (such as this essay all blood and thunder, yes I see me). I'm talking about doing this by candle light in the night in a tower thinking you're alone doing this because maybe someone else wants to see it, because you want to see it. Thinking about a dark landscape of towers or hovels or abandoned apartment buildings with humble lights in the windows, pinpricks in the dark firmament of solitary humans scratching out some manner of actual goddamn life on the page. That manner of work. That manner of lonely light.
Oops. I didn't solve the problem. I didn't give us an answer. There wasn't a triumphal conclusion where the machine got turned off because people recognized the fundamental void at the center of these dead-eyed content machines, the thing that I've taken to calling Anabsence. The source that generates content only a middle manager or consultant could love. The thing that makes idea guys all powerful because the hard work is taken out of their hands. (As other smarter people than me have pointed out -- the idea guy is the most superfluous part of any equation. Sure, ideas are great, but without the dedication and skill and luck to see the idea through into conclusion, all you've got is an idea, and lemme tell ya, those are easy.)