There’s an App for That – even for Fiction

There’s an app for everything these days. For searching, shopping, information, books, car maintenance, home decoration, clothing, cooking, domestic help, medical care, even sex – you name it, there is one. So, what are we left to do, but say, “Alexa, get me…”

 It started with someone saying, “If a process can be diagrammed in a progression of steps, then those steps could be rationalized to the most important ones, and automated.” Repeat as many times afterwards and you will always get a consistent, high-quality product at a low price. Gone are labour costs and human error. Follow this step by placing the app on Google Play or the Apple iStore, feed it to the multitudes, and rake in lots of advertizing revenue.

Gradually, those who provide the goods and services and who unwittingly and voluntarily help the techies diagram their processes—i.e. bricks and mortar retail stores, personal and profession services firms, car mechanics, cooks, decorators, tailors, bookkeepers, travel agents et al—become automated and are rendered obsolete. This list will continue to grow in future as more process-driven professions get computerized. Even programming, that evil mastermind that began automating everything in the first place, is getting automated; soon, one will wonder who has control of the master switch.

Having dodged this speeding bullet for forty-five years, where every job I held ended up inside an app, I finally retreated to the bastion of the imagination—creative writing—where I felt I would be free from the clutches of the automating juggernaut. I have a few years of active work left before I end up in a geriatric state when nothing would matter anymore – so creative writing is going to be my last safe haven. But, lo and behold, my consternation when I saw an advertisement the other day for a novel writing app. “Add your plot points and characters, and watch our algorithm serve up multiple scenarios, twists, endings, car chases, punch-ups, shoot-ups, sex scenes and other situations, and design your novel to be a tragedy, comedy, tragi-comedy or comi-tragedy.” I am making most of this up from memory, but I think you get the gist of where I am going. Orwell had predicted this future, albeit with outmoded technology – but this app looked a damn sight more effective!

“Great,” I thought at first. “This will take out all those hacks who write to a formula (to a process), and that would include those who are writing time-limited and formulaic TV scripts, detective pot boilers, romances, police procedurals, vampire chronicles, fantasy and other predictable stuff, those unimaginative scribes who have invaded my space and taken a disproportionate share of readers’ eyeballs. Fie on them!”

Then I wondered: would my literary novel be safe, where, even with a novelistic arc that suggests “formula,” nothing is taken for granted; where evil could triumph over good if we so desire it, or vice versa; where originality of language matters more, not repetition and stock phrases spewing out of a machine; where subtext matters; where the writer’s moral principles underscore the story? Could automation permeate this deep?

Then I remembered Deep Blue and Gary Kasparov and their chess duel at the end of the last century. Kasparov won in 1996, but Deep Blue came back the very next year, re-tooled for higher performance, and beat Kasparov who was only getting older. And that was over twenty years ago – how far had Artificial Intelligence progressed since then? My literary novel was not safe. No way!

So, there we have it. We will have to learn to live with this new bedfellow whether we like it or not. He (or She, if called by names like Alexa and Siri) will have to complement what we do, and be treated as an ally rather than a foe. For now, I treat him as a gofer (“go find me the meaning of this word” or “go find me some info on this place I want to situate my novel in” etc.). But as my faculties fade and I get lazier, I can see myself ordering him to “write this particular paragraph, adding a touch of humour, a hint of tragedy, a pinch of intrigue, and using five new words that do not recur in the book already.” I could end up a “novel director” instead of a “novelist.” But heaven’s forbid, should the algorithm say to me one day, “Shane, your writing is crap. Take this entire chapter back and re-write it, to my standards – you’ve got five minutes to complete it, and that’s generous, in machine time.”

Festina lente! I never thought I would use that Latin proverb in my writing, but I think it is an apt one here given what we know is barreling down the pike. Or do you think I could confuse the novel-writing algorithm with foreign oxymorons and get it to stop in its tracks or slow down even for a little while?

Festina lente…

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