Automating Authorship

On the same day Amazon introduced their Kindle e-reader late last year, an NEA study was released, announcing Americans are reading fewer books. This confluence of events only added to the long-dragged-out trope, “the death of the book.” Ever since the dot-com bubble, people have predicted the rise of some sort of e-book…but it’s never ever panned out. Why? My guess is book-reading is physical and tactile, and an e-book can’t (so far) replicate that.

There is no doubt, though, the book — or at least the physical artifact we know as “book” — is in something of a crisis. Not too long ago, I heard Ken Wark, a Professor of Culture and Media at The New School’s Eugene Lang College, remark that the professor is now really a “DJ,” as books are no longer assigned to students; rather, collections of essays are gathered up in readers, or, increasingly, just pointed to on the web. What was “the book” is now a mashup. It’s significant that the academy no longer views the book as the center of learning.

Along somewhat similar, but obviously much more theoretical terms, the “death of the author” has been raised, most famously by Barthes. Nicholas Rombes, in an essay in CTheory from 2005, refutes this notion, stating the author is “everywhere”:

Indeed, the author has grown and multiplied in direct proportion to academic dismissals and denunciations of her presence; the more roundly and confidently the author has been dismissed as a myth, a construction, an act of bad faith, the more strongly she has emerged. The recent surge in personal websites and blogs — rather than diluting the author concept — has helped to create a tyrannical authorship presence, where the elevation of the personal and private to the public level has only compounded the cult of the author. We are all authors today.

All of this, so far, is what I hope to be a thought-provoking preamble to an article in today’s NY Times, about a professor and business-owner who has over 200,000 books listed for sale at Amazon. Lots of hours tucked away in the attic writing all that? Hardly:

Mr. Parker…has developed computer algorithms that collect publicly available information on a subject — broad or obscure — and, aided by his 60 to 70 computers and six or seven programmers, he turns the results into books in a range of genres, many of them in the range of 150 pages and printed only when a customer buys one.

…The computer is given an assignment — project the latent demand for antipsychotic drugs around the world, based on the sales figures in the United States. “Using a little bit of artificial intelligence, a computer program has been created that mimics the thought process of someone who would be responsible for doing such a study,” Mr. Parker says. “But rather than taking many months to do the study. the computer accomplishes this in about 13 minutes.”

The articles notes the quality of some of these books may not be all that high, and some of them are not much more than what is found through Google searches.

Still, it begs several questions: Is the author (still) dead? What is an author today, when computers write books on their own? What, then, is a book? Have books lost their relevance? If not, is this yet one more step down that path?

Editorial note: So far, I have not figured out how to get my Mac to write these blog posts…

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