Archive for the 'Writing' Category

War between content generators

In my recent piece on dream logic, I linked to this article about the possibilities of creating computer intelligence. There’s an interesting passage in it that I failed to really notice the first time I read through it.

It’s also reasonable to expect computers to help clean up the mess they have made. They dump huge quantities of information into the cybersphere every day. Can they also help us evaluate this information intelligently? Or are they mere uncapped oil wells pumping out cyber-pollution — which is today just a distraction but might slowly, gradually paralyze us, as our choices and information channels proliferate out of control? As each of us is surrounded by a growing crowd of computer-paparazzi all shouting questions and waving data simultaneously, and no security guards anywhere?

This is something I’ve been thinking about in relation to webpages and search engine results. Since the 90s, people have really been writing web content for two audiences: humans, who actually read the articles, and search engines who “spider” the articles and rank the pages in search results. The sad fact is that if you want to get your article read by humans, you need to keep in mind the demands of search engines which use various, ever-changing algorithms to rank pages.

In the early days, people could trick search engines into ranking their pages highly by using various strategies that created pages which were often completely worthless to humans. For example, if you were trying to rank highly for the keyword “dog” you could create a page which had words like “dog, canine, Fido, Rover” etc. in big bold letters at the top. Search engines liked this, people said “what the fuck?”

Since then, things have gotten better, but you still see a lot of “junk” pages out there. However, as I recently pointed out, computer software is getting better and better at writing news articles. It seems like things could quickly get to the point where people could publish 1000 similar articles on the same topic, figuring that at least some of them would dominate search engine results. At this point, human authored articles would be competing with computer-generated articles for search engine rankings. And, in any battle between humans and computers, computers always win.

The point the author makes above is that maybe computers could help weed through all the computer generated muck and find what would truly be useful. At which point an arms race between computer software develops: content generating computers versus content filtering computers. It seems that the only possible outcome is the complete destruction of humanity and the rise of a flesh eating race of cyborg aliens.

The appeal of writing

So I’ve mentioned I’ve been out on the web reviewing a lot of the information available on novel writing. One thing I’ve discovered is that everyone on earth is writing a novel. Seriously, it’s amazing. When are you going to finish your novel, dear reader?

Back in my 20s, novel writing was sort of my back up plan if I failed to be a successful rock star. My thinking was that the world of music might prove to be too competitive – after all, everyone wants to be a musician – but novel writing – because of the effort involved – would be less so. Most common mortals couldn’t have the stamina to engage in novel creation, I reasoned. But it looks like I was wrong.

I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve come to this conclusion: Who are the people making music? Mostly young people, because music is a – ironically – very appearance focused business. Musicians needs to have trim, tight bodies and god like good looks (areas where I, of course, excel). But writers…? Writers can be – are almost expected to be – doughy faced, sloth like creatures with crumbs of their lunch on their shirt and stains of feces on their fingers. In short, writers look like most of humanity. As a result, many people say, “There’s no way I could be a musician, but a writer – that seems obtainable.”

But, I think there might be more to it as well. Writing may not be the flashiest dramatic medium — film, TV and music come to mind — but it’s one that can be pursued with the most basic of tools: words. You don’t need to invest in fancy equipment; you can get by with a pencil and paper if need be. It’s the most naked of art forms.

Words of encouragement

Lately I’ve been reading through a lot of posts by bloggers describing the process of novel writing. This one is worth attention. The author, in his day job as a waiter, had an encounter with Philip Roth, a noted and famous author, albeit one whose work I have never read. The author hands a copy of his recently published novel to Roth and…

Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

While ruminating, the author rebounds, concluding…

And though I have only one novel published—and experienced none of the success of Roth—I still feel strongly that the one thing a writer has above all else, the reward which is bigger than anything that may come to him after huge advances and Hollywood adaptations, is the weapon against boredom. The question of how to spend his time, what to do today, tomorrow, and during all the other pockets of time in between when some doing is required: this is not applicable to the writer.