Publishing expert Jane Friedman reported early this month that someone (or some thing) had written books under her name and published them on Amazon.
There’s a rich and incomplete story to tell about her travails trying to get the books delisted from Amazon and Goodreads. It doesn’t bode well for any creative artist hoping to protect her or his income and good name from exploitation, whether from artificial or biological bad actors.
I think the crapification of content is the other part of her story.
I don’t know if the knock-off books listed under her name were any good, but let’s assume that they were brilliantly prefect simulacra of her substance and tone. That content would likely have come from an LLM that absorbed all of her past work and spit out rearranged ideas and words…and not from a human being having spent the time (and possessing the skill) to produce the knockoffs.
Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but it’s not art. It’s not original, by definition, so it’s not new in any meaningful sense of the word.
It’s just content, which means it’s crap. The world was awash in it long before AI.
Content, which roughly means “something that is contained,” emerged as the Internet blew up limitations on distribution and truth. Online platforms created a huge, gnawing need to be fed, far outpacing online visitors’ growing appetite to consume it.
But it didn’t matter, especially to corporations, which had always been frustrated with the limitations of accuracy and relevance that journalists dared to impose on their marketing communications efforts. Why wasn’t announcement of a .02 improvement in megahertz nuance of a minor widget on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, or the CEO’s rumination about the importance of teamwork featured in the Harvard Business Review?
Online distribution meant everyday was Christmas morning for companies. They could tell the world whatever they wanted to say, unrestrained by worries about newsworthiness or whether or not anybody would care about it. It had to look great when presented internally. Perhaps include buzzwords that pleased some internal stakeholders or a blathertastic quote from a senior executive. Maybe be funny or edgy, or perhaps incomprehensible, as long as it satisfied insiders’ expectations.
It didn’t matter, since there were no longer any real imitations on frequency, and no judgments that required making any tangible connection to selling or other old fashioned business practices. Content was the label on a box on a PowerPoint slide that had to be filled.
Just imagine if Gutenberg had inspired creators to think of their output as “type” when he invented the printing press. Gotta produce more type, says Shakespeare Corp.
Haven’t you noticed that most companies spend a lot of time and money telling us crap that doesn’t matter, or that’s only sorta, kinda, maybe true? They’re all solving climate change and encouraging social justice, their products and services all united in purpose to make the world a better place.
Endless streams of content. The box stays filled. Many thousands of people are employed to produce what amounts to business selfies.
Which brings me back to AI.
ChatGPT is finding early favor with marketers and other content creators who’re outsourcing their work to the AIs. The transition is simple, since all it requires is absorbing past corporate content and spitting out rearranged ideas and words.
Just like those faux books that appeared on Amazon.
Some corporate types have said that almost half of their workdays are occupied by creating content. This raises serious questions about productivity, as AIs can produce the crap faster and more often and they don’t require healthcare or managerial encouragement.
The world hasn’t seen the amount of useless drivel that companies can produce if empowered by AI.
AI is really good at filling boxes; in fact, that’s what a set of rules triggered by queries defines. If this, do that. It doesn’t have to bet art. Or original. Or particularly meaningful.
Jane Friedman’s experience is just the tip of the iceberg.
An iceberg built of crap.