Thursday, May 18, 2023

The future is always murky

     "I imagine cards will go first," my wife said, giving the card she had just opened several little punctuating shakes as she spoke.
     Wednesday. Her birthday morning. She had opened her card, affixed atop a present, given the requisite ooo's and ah's for its beauty and aptness, then boom, straight to the effect of artificial intelligence on the the communication industry. 
     By "cards will go first" she meant that algorithms will replace the teams of wordsmiths and artists laboring for Hallmark and such. I didn't have to ask for elaboration. Cards have different types — the humorous, the artistic, the poetic, the affectionate. I had opted for the beautiful. The product of humans, but that can change. Scan enough cards in and let the code do the rest. Words and pictures. She didn't add, "With newspaper columns shortly thereafter." She didn't have to.
     The media has been pounding the What-Will-AI-Do? drum furiously for months. I tend to ignore it, because when I roll up my sleeves and read one it turns out, like Gertrude Stein's Oakland, that there is no there there.
     I abandon the cautionary essays unmoved. My take on the AI menace remains the same. It's hard enough to get people to act like people and fulfill their full creative potential. Machines do it wrong, slightly, and when it comes to something like a greeting card — or a newspaper column — even a slight wrong is a lot. It only takes a little spit to spoil the soup.
     Besides, there will be no AI writing newspaper columns because the demand will die long before they get good at it. I haven't yet gotten an email from a reader demanding, "Who ARE you and why are you telling us about your life?" But that moment approaches day by day. Hatters kept trying to make cheaper hats when the problem was that men no longer felt like wearing them.
     That said, I'm reluctant to predict the future, as the guys who called cell phones a fad in 1983. (They might be. When was the last time you talked on the phone? Phones could yet end up like compact discs, a change that showed up, seemed permanent, and then years went by and it wasn't. Which makes sense. Nothing is permanent).
     The model I use is my youth in the 1960s, when the space program carbonized our brains. Tang was big. So were "Space Food Sticks," a sort of bland, mushy Tootsie-Roll-like concoction. Someday we would all enjoy entire meals in the form of a single pill.
     Or not. Turns out people liked preparing real food, or at least eating real food. I ate TV dinners all the time as a child — that pair of hot dogs in their shallow sea of beans. Mmm! Now I never do. If my wife came home and I served her a Hungry Man dinner her reaction would be comparable to if I served a pair of roasted hamsters.
     My hunch is that people want to read cards or stories, view paintings or hear songs created by other people. That readers will never curl up with some book churned out by a robot. Maybe I'm wrong. People do read boilerplate thrillers churned out by anonymous writers pretending to be a certain best-selling author . Maybe AI-created works will be fantastic in some unimaginably wonderful way, and my suggesting otherwise is like scoffing that someone would attend the opera without a top hat. The future is always murky.


  1. I don't think you or the publishing or card industry need to worry.

  2. "People do read boilerplate thrillers churned out by anonymous writers pretending to be a certain best-selling author."
    I smiled at this. Good on you.

    1. The Hardy Boys series, Nancy Drew, and many other fictional series for children were churned out by anonymous writers pretending to be best-selling authors...who did not exist. Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon were pen names used by publishing syndicates for decades, to disguise the fact that the books were written, at 500 words on the dollar, by a stable of nobodies.

      And later on, there was George Orwell, in "Nineteen Eighty-Four"...who wrote of boilerplate novels produced by novel-writing machines, in the Fiction Department at the Ministry of Truth. Heavy machinery (probably huge printing presses) contains "kaleidoscopes" that "rough-in" the plots of novels. Trashy pornography for the masses originates with "directives" (yeah, right) from a Planning Committee, and ends with a final "touch-up" (uh-huh) from the Rewrite Squad.

      "They're boring. They only have six plots, but they swap them around a bit..." reveals Julia, Winston Smith's lover, and a mechanic who serviced (sorry) one of the porn machines. But wait...there's more... the porno production crew is all-female, with a male department head, natch. The theory being that men were more likely to be "corrupted" by the "filth" they handled.

      Maybe that (but with AI and computerization, not mechanization) is our literary tomorrow. Or maybe that whole fantasy is already as anachronistic as Orwell's famous novel of life in the future.

  3. My guess is that bots would be good at sequels and formula writing (like legal briefs: tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them). Readers, on the other hand, if aware of the AI origin, are likely to turn up their noses at such, just as some of us shrink from GMO foods. I have yet to be exposed to any admitted AI "creations," but I think I could get over my snobbishness and enjoy a remix of human creations, which themselves are remixes of an author's influences, including literary works she/he has perused.


  4. I have absolutely no use for greeting cards. I don't get why people spend a fortune to keep Hallmark in business. If you need a card, you have dozens of ways on your computer to create & print one for a fraction of the cost. Or you can go to Dollar Tree & get it for a buck & a quarter, instead of five bucks from Hallmark.
    For birthdays, I just send a plain text email saying "Happy Birthday"! That costs nothing!
    And don't ever send me those goopy sentimental cards that grandmas always send out. I want funny nasty ones!

    1. What a fun guy. How many people do you still need to send those plain-text "Happy Birthday" e-mails to?

      But I totally agree with you on one thing...the worst cards are those mushy and sentimental cards that RHYME. I'll admit to doing plain old mushy occasionally, but I will not send rhyming card to anybody, anywhere, for any reason, ever. I detest them. If the text is in rhyme...I ain't got the time. Forget that noise.

      I like snark and bad puns...and I actually gave my wife a card with a drawing of a winged and feathered creature...which also said: "Happy bird day...tweet yourself to an amazing day!" We are still married.

    2. I once tried out for a job as a writer for Gibson greeting cards. They sent me a test, and I had to come up with catchy sayings. For one item, I wrote: I wanted to buy you a shiny bauble for your birthday. Then you open the card and there's a bubblegum machine. My catchy saying: But the bauble gum machine was broken.

      I didn't get the job.

    3. I send them to my sisters & all expect in return are the same emails.

    4. I was already in my 30s when I responded to numerous Reader want ads for basic clerical work...nothing more... at Recycled Paper Greetings--which is now part of American Greetings. They were best known for producing those ubiquitous and utterly annoying "Cathy" cards, based on the comic strip that ran in hundreds of papers for far too long (1976 to 2010).

      After literally years of applying...and being ignored...I was granted a screening interview, treated shabbily, called "overqualified"...and summarily dismissed. RPG's products were often quite funny, but their miserable treatment of Chicago job applicants in the Eighties left a great deal to be desired.

    5. Kinda sorry to hear that, Grizz. I don't buy cards much anymore, but when I did, Recycled Paper Greetings were among my favorites, and I was pleased that they were in Chicago.

    6. They were brusque and ill-mannered...and, yeah,I realize it was almost forty years ago, but I'm not the type who forgives or forgets. Which is unfortunate. Because it means that a lot of buffoons have been living rent-free in my head for decades.

  5. "People do read boilerplate thrillers churned out by anonymous writers pretending to be a certain best-selling author."

    I don't suppose you were thinking of my old buddy "Franklin W. Dixon" crafting one Hardy Boys mystery after another, but it fits.

    "the guy who called cell phones a fad in 1983" Right around the point shortly after 9/11 when I looked at the Amazon stock price and thought, "hmmm... that seems like a good buy," the brief Anthrax scare that lasted about a day-and-a-half convinced me that this mail-order idea, supercharged by the internet or not, was too risky.

  6. I was recently looking around at some part-time jobs. So I had to connect with Monster/Indeed and some of the other job sites and I started conversing back and forth with "Phil". Or so I thought. About the third email exchange they let me know that "Phil" bot. I thought "Phil" was my new buddy. Nope. Had me fooled.

  7. First, don’t knock roasted hamsters until you’ve tried them.
    Second, AI must be creating the names of these new drugs on the market. I mean, are there really people out there sitting around a table saying, “Hey what do you think of this drug for constipation… Trumpsantis?”

  8. My guess is that AI authored media will be monetized, weaponized, and demonized, then a consumer caste system will emerge in the marketplace. The hipsters and the rich will revel in the superiority of the hand-crafted analog goodies, much like the vinyl aficionados. There will be dollar store AI products as well as boutique AI one-offs for either end of the spectrum. The tony Upper East Side private schools will boast to parents that no AI is sullying their classes, while the inner cities will be using AI that is four generations behind.
    I am not a bot.

  9. Having just gone through the exercise of finding a couple of Mother's Day cards for my wife, it's hard for me to believe that AI could write them much worse. I ended up with a couple of blank-inside cards and wrote my own messages. Better than AI, I hope, but who knows by next year.


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