It was the blurst of times

There’s a passage (titled “Books inspire maniacal scheming”) in Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? in which he finds himself seated between Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt at a dinner, and experiences their conversation as though he is fixed at one speed while they skip along rapidly at another. He attributes this sensation to the fact that he’s writing a book (not there at the table, but elsewhere, and over a very long period of time). Putting aside for a moment the specifics of what Amazon and Google are or are not doing in the publishing space, the image of rapidity vs. a slowness that borders on inertia is interesting. Of course acceleration is the tendency at the intersection of technology and commerce. Things speed up. We learn more, we build faster. Sometimes the rate of change feels exponential (and sometimes it actually is). But this notion of relative velocity, of some things seeming to stand still, while others spin wildly off into the future, is particularly apt when we’re talking about books.

It’s what I felt last week when I read that Amazon had launched Storywriter, a screenwriting tool that comes with the ability to submit your screenplays directly to Amazon Studios.

Much of the initial discussion around Storywriter focused on the features of the tool itself (cloud-based, multiple output formats, offline access), and the fact that it is free. Some have pointed out the ‘similar content’ clause. (The latter strikes me as not all that different from the language that any large agency or studio uses to protect themselves from unsolicited submissions. Without it a cottage industry would spring up, as it has in the patent world, wherein parties pitch manuscripts broadly and widely, then litigate their way to wealth as everyone “steals their ideas.”)

Still others tried to parse the differences between this tool and Amazon’s defunct Storyteller program from a couple of years ago. (Upshot: though many have described Storywriter as a replacement for Storyteller, they’re not really the same at all, as Storyteller was a storyboarding tool and Storywriter has no such feature.)

But none of this concerned me: my mind went straight to the slush pile.

Can you think of anything less Amazon-like than employing the countless readers it would take to give these submissions even a cursory read-through? Anticipating an avalanche of submissions (Lanier also suggests in his book that soon the number of writers among us will match the number of readers), could the plan possibly be to use actual humans, using their meat hands to feebly scroll through pages one at a time? Using their singular brains to process and respond to the words they see in front of them?

No. Amazon needs some next-level, Samantha-style AI reading efficiency for this, and if they don’t have it already, you can bet it’s something they’re working on.

So let’s skip forward a little, to a time when Amazon sets this posited slush pile sifter to work finding acquisitions for their book imprints as well, and have Diapers.commed the entire commercial publishing industry. (I say commercial because you’ll need to wrest the Gocco press and Swingline stapler from my cold dead hands.)

What happens when the writer class, now in their millions, glom onto how the few are chosen? How will it change the way they write, when they know their audience/first reader is a piece of software (project name: Plmptn)?

And at some point, why even write? Why not just build the software (let’s call this one Qrkham) that writes screenplays and novels to Plmptn’s exacting editorial standards, then let the two of them in tandem feed content to the masses?

In the town where I grew up, there was a bridge that ran parallel to its older, dismantled predecessor: a ghost bridge that once allowed the area’s early residents, dairy farmers and mill workers mainly, passage to the next town over. The old bridge now consists only of its piers. One on each bank, and a third sitting plinth-like in the center of the river, formed against a very small island. Whether the island predates the bridge or it’s the other way around, I’m not sure, but today their story is one of erosion. The island seems to get smaller and smaller every year, and both pier and island are now densely overgrown with trees. At the edge of the land their trunks bend outward, curving up and over the water that rushes past below.

As I sit here, flipping through the pages of a yellowed penguin paperback, looking for a quote I’m only half-certain exists, I wonder:

How soon is the day coming when “the book” gives way completely to the deluge? Or is it even now finding a way to adapt and survive, taking root in the very last bits of a receding shoreline? Is it ludicrous — or prudent — to fear that the most precious expressions of our consciousness could in any way be approximated by a machine?

Let’s ponder that last one alongside some words from Virginia Woolf. (I found the quote. It wasn’t on my shelf.) Woolf who, by the way, published both some of her own work and that of other writers, at Hogarth Press.

“Is there any characteristic which thought possesses that can be rendered visible without the help of words? It has speed and slowness; dartlike directness and vaporous circumlocution. But it has also, especially in moments of emotion, the picture-making power, the need to lift its burden to another bearer; to let an image run side by side along with it. The likeness of the thought is, for some reason, more beautiful, more comprehensible, more available than the thought itself. As everybody knows, in Shakespeare the most complex ideas form chains of images through which we mount, changing and turning, until we reach the light of day.”

- from “The Cinema,” by Virginia Woolf

She goes on from this passage to declare words (alone) the best device to serve these manifestations of thought, and yet throughout the essay she anticipates fully what film is capable of, and how in the right hands it will become a new kind of instrument, perfectly tuned to convey the hidden worlds we have inside us.

(Essay title taken from Simpsons episode “Last Exit to Springfield,” written by Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky. Photo by Florian Klauer.)

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