The End Times
10 Ways Human Writing Will Survive The Textpocalypse
Human writing is being replaced by computers at rapid speeds. Ruby Thelot thinks there's a light at the end of the textpocalypse.
By Ruby Thelot
Asemic art by Jean-Christophe Giacottino
The End Times is a column cataloguing the omens of the Apocalypse as they occur in culture.
- I remember the first piece of writing I ever really loved. I was rummaging carelessly through the second drawer my father’s dresser looking for change and stumbled upon a beige book with crispy brittle pages, as if the book had been slow toasted for decades on a perennial radiator. I took it out. On the first page, above the title, my dad had signed his named, his flowy initials protruding from the lower caps letters, below the month and day: January 1988. Sifting through the volume, I encountered an ear-marked page, the third poem of the collection. I still remember it –––
- Text was the first primitive of the social internet because it is smaller in terms of bytes than images and videos. In order to be usable, pages had to load quickly to retain the attention of the viewer, hence the focus on text. Text was everywhere: blogs, status updates, instant messages, emails, personal websites. With the advent of Google’s AdSense, writers and companies alike came to the realization that writing on the internet could be monetized. Advertisers would be willing to pay a certain amount per click on a banner, if you placed it on your highly visited site. The centralization led to a perverse incentive to create “content” which could generate the most clicks and views. Content is a creation whose sole purpose is reaching an audience. Writing as “content” became subservient to search engine optimization (SEO) and Google Analytics. Companies hired writers not to expound on the benefits of their products or services, but to use the right words and links to drive traffic towards their site and convert visitors to sales. Even publications, supposedly devoted to writing, started loosening their editorial standards in order to keep visits high and advertisers happy.
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“Companies hired writers not to expound on the benefits of their products or services, but to use the right words and links to drive traffic towards their site and convert visitors to sales. Even publications, supposedly devoted to writing, started loosening their editorial standards in order to keep visits high and advertisers happy.”
- At its height, Buzzfeed, the undisputed king of listicles, was worth almost 1.7 billion dollars. But, in their focus on data, the company rationalized writing on the internet and turned it, with their team of data analysts, into a science rather than an art. As writing became increasingly "contentized" over the last three decades (clickbait articles, listicles, gratuitous hot takes for views), it became ironically susceptible to automation. The web-traffic industrial complex is now confronted with the problem of automated generative technologies, such as Chat-GPT, that can crank out far more pieces than any human could, following their tried and true prosaic format. This isn’t a problem so much for the companies, who seem inclined to adopt the new technologies, but the consequences are severe for the writers who were gainfully employed at these corporations and whose living depended on their income. Unable to drive clicks and views efficiently: What then, is the path forward for the human writers?
“As writing became increasingly 'contentized' over the last three decades (clickbait articles, listicles, gratuitous hot takes for views), it became ironically susceptible to automation.”
- Optimistically, this usurping of the function of the writer-as-SEO-smith liberates us from our current role and opens the possibility for a new culture of writing online. Writing will be fun again! Once the machine has extinguished all the possible combinations of SEO-optimized articles, written and published, what will be left to write but earnest, profound, and true writing? Something a machine could never do.
- Dr. Matthew Kirschenbaum, professor of English and Digital Studies at the University of Maryland, in his latest article in the Atlantic, “Prepare for the Textpocalypse,” bemoans the radical shift that soon will occur in our relationship with writing because of the upcoming "tsunami of [AI-generated] text." Through OpenAI’s ChatGPT API, companies have already started offering automated writing services for both marketing and journalistic purposes. Buzzfeed even tried to stop the Icarus-like fall of their stock by announcing that they would employ AI to write articles. CNET recently also announced that writing on the platform would be AI-assisted.
“Once the machine has extinguished all the possible combinations of SEO-optimized articles, written and published, what will be left to write but earnest, profound, and true writing?”
- But, think about it, in a world of abundant content-optimized text generated either by machines or a human-machine hybrid, human writers have a chance to shine again. They are uniquely positioned to find new uses for writing and deploy it into the world in ways that resist contentization.
- Writing can be more than just text. Initiatives like Austin Robey’s and Metalabel’s Lonely Writers Club, a digital writing club focused on mutual accountability and community feedback, or Stripe Press’ Writing Day, a 24-hour writing sprint aimed at sharing new ideas with fellow writers, remind us that writing can be a mode of community building and can create effective networks of support. In such instances, writing takes the form of a collective of idea-sharing and craft improvement. Writing is then inscribed, not the individualized practice of an employee, but in that of a group seeking truth and companionship through written exploration.
“In a world of abundant content-optimized text generated either by machines or a human-machine hybrid, human writers have a chance to shine again.”
- Writing still is one of the most compelling forms of social provocation. Her latest opinion piece “Men are lost. Here’s a map out of the wilderness,” for the Washington Post, Christine Emba used writing to clearly state, diagnose, and present a path for our nation’s men. Beyond the hot take economy, there is a dire need of potential solutions and ways forward for the problems we face as a society. The piece kickstarted a fresh new conversation and brought new perspectives on an issue which previously felt stale. More than 10,000 people have opined in the comment section below the piece. Colleagues, families, friends, all over the country, are discussing, as we speak, ways to help the men in their lives.
- Finally, there is more room for the writing I truly love. The one from the introduction. The kind I still remember. Words meant for the other. Paul Verlaine, the 19th century French poet, wrote his collection “Romances Sans Paroles” after a tumultuous year living abroad with Arthur Rimbaud, the enfant terrible of French poetry at the time and his then lover. The third poem is epigraphed by Rimbaud. “Il pleut doucement sur la ville. [It is raining softly on the city.]” I keep the four stanzas with me at all times. The image of page 6 read from the table lamp is forever engraved in my memory. There is still room to write for one another, to scribble secret messages, to bake crispy stolen pages and let them find their way in the public domain. No matter the incentives: we can still write for each other, we can still write to change our world, and I can still write for you.