The Computer Writing on the Digital Wall

in The Salon by

Reading and writing are going out of style.

The Pew Research Center conducted a study showing that the percentage of Americans who actually read books, either physically or digitally, is shrinking, while the percentage of those listening to audiobooks is growing. Twenty-seven percent of the people asked admitted they hadn’t read any kind of book whatsoever in the past 12 months.

Mind you, that’s only the people who actually admitted to it. Polls are notorious for skewing the facts by relying on the honesty of everyday people. How many of the participants hadn’t read a book in the past year but were too ashamed to say so? How many only read one or two but told the pollster they’d read six? The rule is: When someone tells you how many books they’ve read, you have to divide by three. A lot of those people who said they hadn’t read a book in the past 12 months probably haven’t picked up a book in years.

Polls don’t tell us what people think and do. Polls tell us what people admit to thinking and doing — which is of interest, I guess, but not exactly reality.

As you could’ve guest, the Pew study shows that rich college-educated white women read more than anybody, while poor brown men who dropped out of high school read the least. Latinos read the least of any racial or ethnic group, with the foreign-born reading way less than their U.S.-born cousins, 56 percent versus 27 percent. Poor Latinos were also more likely to admit they’d never even stepped foot in a library.

That last bit is heartbreaking. But now it makes sense that one of the first phrases taught in Spanish 101 is “¿Donde está la biblioteca?

The New Yorker just published a long article on recent advances in artificial intelligence that allow computers to predict the next words in a person’s email or letter or essay or whatever. In May 2018 Google introduced the Smart Compose feature in Gmail, which predicts the next words in a person’s email, thus cutting down on emailing time.

As John Seabrook writes (or does he?):

Based on the words you’ve written, and on the words that millions of Gmail users followed those words with, ‘predictive text’ guesses where your thoughts are likely to go and, to save you time, wraps up the sentence for you, appending the A.I.’s suggestion, in gray letters, to the words you’ve just produced. Hit Tab, and you’ve saved yourself as many as twenty keystrokes.

One can opt out of Smart Compose easily enough, but I had chosen not to, even though it frequently distracted me. I was fascinated by the way the A.I. seemed to know what I was going to write. Perhaps because writing is my vocation, I am inclined to consider my sentences, even in a humble e-mail, in some way a personal expression of my original thought. It was therefore disconcerting how frequently the A.I. was able to accurately predict my intentions, often when I was in midsentence, or even earlier. Sometimes the machine seemed to have a better idea than I did.

The New Yorker article is really about how engineers are teaching computers to think more and more like humans do. There are two basic but opposing sides to A.I.: the knowledge-based side, where you give the computer all the answers and tell it what to do beforehand, and the machine-learning side, where the computer has to figure things out on its own. Our human brains operate in both ways, integrating what we are taught with what we learn for ourselves; almost all A.I. does only one or the other. The knowledge-based side developed first and quickly, because it’s simpler. Seabrook gives the examples of IBM’s Watson computer that beat what’s-his-face on Jeopardy!

The machine-learning side is the new frontier, where things are getting really interesting, or, depending on how you feel, creepy.

“Finally, I crossed my Rubicon,” writes Seabrook:

The sentence itself was a pedestrian affair. Typing an e-mail to my son, I began ‘I am p—’ and was about to write ‘pleased’ when predictive text suggested ‘proud of you.’ I am proud of you. Wow, I don’t say that enough. And clearly Smart Compose thinks that’s what most fathers in my state say to their sons in e-mails. I hit Tab. No biggie.

And yet, sitting there at the keyboard, I could feel the uncanny valley prickling my neck. It wasn’t that Smart Compose had guessed correctly where my thoughts were headed—in fact, it hadn’t. The creepy thing was that the machine was more thoughtful than I was.

Together, these two bits of news spell the end of literacy in the United States. With so much to watch — on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, and now Disney+ and all the other streaming services about to launch in the next few years — and programs like Smart Compose and Grammarly, it isn’t hard to imagine a world in the not too distant future where people rarely read and, when they need to write something, have their words written for them, even chosen for them, by some computer, a machine, some thing.

We’re pretty much halfway there already. I recently read somewhere how teachers and professors are having trouble teaching their students to write in a less systematic way. Teachers have been training generations of kids to write according to specific rules, with a specific structure and according to a specific process, that even people graduating from elite universities still come out writing formulaically — you might even say robotically. They know how to write, though they don’t really know what they’re writing about.

Reading and writing are forms of thinking. Words are tied to ideas — they represent ideas — so juggling words and wrestling them onto the page is really the same as juggling and wrestling with ideas. People who don’t know how to read or write, or are at least very weak at it, will also be weak thinkers. And a society of weak thinkers makes for a democracy of citizens voting blindly and a marketplace of consumers buying blindly.

As a writer, nothing can be more depressing than the advent of a society where people are reading and writing less and less. For one it means the demand for my type of work is shrinking, but it also means that I will have to dumb myself down if I’m to be understood by the most number of readers. I’m torn: on the one hand I want to reach people with my words, but on the other I want to write as best I can, readers be damned.

But then again, I get it. I get that people have less and less time to read and write these days. Who has time to read a book, especially in the working class? I mean a good book, one that takes time not only to read but to digest. You can read the back of cereal boxes from sunup to sundown, but it just ain’t the same as reading a good book for a couple hours. A good book changes you, adds to you; cereal boxes just rot your brain.

Checking the word count, I see I’m already past the 1,000-word mark recommended by media types who say the average internet reader won’t bother with anything he can’t swallow in under two minutes. Which begs the question: Will anybody read this?

Which begs another question: Why did I even bother writing it?


Featured image: rabiem22/Flickr

Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave. A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, he is also the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including The Huffington Post. He studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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