Writing: There’s an App for That

Garbage In, Masterpiece Out

Robot Journalism

The Brothers Karamazov is a masterpiece of Russian literature, rich with human drama and its overlapping family and religious themes. Dostoevsky clearly poured his heart and soul into the effort, and it shows. But what if he had been able to offload some of the writing chores to an app on his iPhone?

Ridiculous, you say? Not according to a recent article in The Atlantic. As documented in “Can the Computers at Narrative Science Replace Paid Writers?” by creative writing professor Joe Fassler, computers are now capable of generating press releases, news articles, and business documents automatically based on stores of relevant data. If you have this month’s sales figures in a spreadsheet, it’s just a simple push of a button to create a ten-page narrative that summarizes the results, complete with grammatically-correct flowing paragraphs analyzing the numbers.

Should readers—or better yet, writers—of classics-level content be concerned? Will “being well-read” soon mean little more than scanning the SIRI-generated news each evening? Personally, I’m not concerned. In fact, I’m somewhat delighted. Having worked with computer software for decades, I’m constantly surprised at the mediocre forms of displayed and written communication that software applications routinely pass off as information. While “garbage in, garbage out” may be true, the fact is that most of what we got from the software products of the past was borderline meaningful. “Abort, retry, fail?”

There is the risk that computers will take over writing jobs formerly “manned” by human writers. But it has always been the case that technology supplants some of the more mundane tasks, freeing people up to develop new fields and new technologies, including computers, and including writing tools and forms. It’s just more personal to authors when it happens to them rather than factory workers.

Anyway, I think this is an exciting new adventure for computers everywhere.


HAL 9000

[Image Credits: Tow Center for Digital Journalism]


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