Monday, December 26, 2022

Of AIs and wordwooze

There have been many novels and stories written about machines for writing things, but the one that sticks in my head is Lieber's The Silver Eggheads and even about this one I recall very little detail. Fiction writing has been, in the future of this book, taken over by machines, wordmills, which grind out wordwooze. The latter is easily consumable, mostly the same, repetitive, "bad" writing that has pushed all the "real" writers out of work because it is so cheap to make, and good enough for the general public.

It may be that we'll see real wordmills shortly, although I confess that I am dubious. I feel as if the current generation of AI technology is about to tap out, and will prove structurally incapable of producing more than a few thousand words in a row that hang together even loosely. Be that as it may.

I want to talk a little about a pair of essays I read recently. The first is Rebecca Solnit's "The Blue of Distance" (which is also the title and lead essay of a book of the same name) and the second is Freddie deBoer's more recent "Up You Go" published on his substack. A quick google around will get you to copies of both essays.

If you squint, they're kind of similar. Pretty short, easy to read. Easy-reading language, quick to consume, pleasing sentence follows pleasing sentence and so on. They open with some fairly random observations and facts, while the second act is built around a personal anecdote, and they wrap up with a glib, summarizing, observation. They are, I maintain, different, in ways that are hinted at in my opening remarks above, and in ways that I think are important.

Solnit is a good writer, she can craft sentences and paragraphs. She can also do research, and wrote a pretty good bio of Muybridge that only contained a couple of technical fumbles. She embodies the modern era's someone whose expertise is in writing rather than in any specific subject matter, but with just enough chops to write pretty broadly. deBoer is pretty much equally skilled with language, but sticks a bit closer to home. He writes about things that he actually has pretty deep domain knowledge on, or essentially about himself and his emotional life ("Up You Go" is one of the latter.)

I don't much like Solnit. She seems to be to embody the young man described by, I think, Orwell who told his mother he intended to write. When she asked what he intended to write about the young man explained to his mother that in these times one doesn't write about anything, one simply writes. This is an attitude that I detest. It comes out of a desire to equate a usually overblown ability to push words around with actually knowing things. Solnit's bio of Muybridge is well written, and well researched, but it becomes clear that she is interested in certain things about Muybridge, but not at all interested in other things. Indeed, she's pretty vague on a lot of relevant material. Solnit is no anorak, and even her not-very technical writing tends to rub right up against the edge of the knowledge she's researched-up. She's not as disinterested as the young man, but she's not really engaged, either.

I do like deBoer, who is a troubled man, and who has been far more troubled in the past. He writes with real integrity, and is nothing like the young man in Orwell's anecdote.

In Solnit's essay, she talks for a while about how painters use blue to indicate distance, salting in facts like peanuts in a candy bar, and then wanders into a story of walking across the dry lakebed of the Great Salt Lake in Utah in a drought year. She's trying to walk to Antelope Island, and isn't able to because, eventually, she finds the much-reduced lake. The only actual idea she proposes is that, perhaps, the state of desiring (or of desiring something) is itself a condition we might aspire to. Then she just sort of drops it and moves on. The essay is what I have heard characterized as "that New Yorker shit," it has no beginning, no end, you can start anywhere, it doesn't matter. Each sentence is beautifully made to follow the previous one and flow into the next one, but that's about it.

deBoer's essay starts in with some personal observations about aging, and about how he's taller than average but not actually that big of a guy, and then goes into a personal anecdote about attending an emo-concert, and hoisting a bunch of small emo kids up, so they can go crowd surfing, and it ends with some glib words about feeling good. Each sentence is well made, the flow is good, just like Solnit's writing.

The difference between the two is that deBoer's essay is firmly nailed to reality. If his anecdote was revealed to be untrue, or to be someone else's story retasked, or whatever, it would destroy the essay. If Solnit's trek across the Great Salt Lake was revealed to be somehow invented it would not matter in the slightest. It's shaped as a kind of allegorical journey anyway, although what it's an allegory for is elided.

To my eye, deBoer's essay is rooted in reality, it emerges organically from real things that really happened, which deBoer wants to tell us about, which deBoer learned some things from. He wants to tell us about these life events and what they mean to him, how they shaped him. Solnit wants to captivate the reader, and to hit a word count; her essay is 3004 words long. Worse, she wants to captivate a specific reader, someone who is themselves essentially divorced from reality. She wants to talk to people who have never painted a picture (her discussion of Facts About Painting is trivial to the point of dumb even to anyone who has even dabbled) and who have never across a dry lakebed.

Solnit's writing is of a character that is, if not dominant, certainly very popular. It especially has traction with the unserious but wanna-bee erudite people, the kinds of people who share links to New Yorker articles about minimalism. It's not postmodern, not really, it has none of the fuck-you tics of that style, it's a kind of post-post-modern. It seeks to be purely textual, a construct made only of language. I associate the style specifically with the New Yorker in which, for structural, physical, reasons it's difficult to find the beginning of a specific piece. The editors seem to have dealt with this not by fixing the bad magazine design, but by inventing a writing style which makes it not matter. Open the thing anywhere and start reading, it doesn't matter. None of the articles actually have any structure anyway. Whenever they actually seems to say something, it's generally just remixing some essentially trivial idea that's in vogue (see: minimalism.) The remix is maybe mashed up with some other stuff, possibly an artist that's neither quite obscure nor quite mainstream. Like anything by Sontag, you finish up feeling like you've really had some shit revealed to you, but under pressure you can't quite put your finger on what. If you can summarize it, it comes out idiotically trite "well, in the end, I guess what she's saying is to do unto others as you would ... oh fuck, seriously?"

In a way, this is the triumph of formalism over content. People like Solnit, Chayka, and all the others, write within the mesh of inter-glyph-relationship that is language, much like GPT3 and other so-called Large Language Models. They are writing, manually, what is recognizably wordwooze. GPT3 is, at least in part, successful not because it writes well but because it writes badly in a currently popular style. Social media, of course, has popularized another variant of this, in which what passes for "discussion" or "argument" is in fact just the same well-worn series of remarks rephrased with slightly different words. It isn't that GPT3 doesn't write gibberish, it does. It's that many of the humans write the same kind of gibberish.

In the same way, I think the AI picture makers are getting a pass. So much of the imagery we see is formalism, as pure as the maker can manage. Photographs cannot escape a certain connection to reality, but this can at least be minimized and often that rather seems to be the point. Photographers are obsessed with "composition" which to them means a quasi-linguistic method of arranging forms in the frame so as to "be a good picture." Photographers are obsessed with correct exposure, and "what are the right settings for..." and the right way to light a thing, or whatever. The actual content is largely irrelevant, and when you must think about it, you should probably reach for one of a handful of tropes. An arrow pointing left and a guy walking right, perfect. Now for the composition, and what about The Light! The Light! and so on. Seriously, fuck the light. Nobody cares about the god damned light.

An AI that basically can't do anything except remix tropes fits right into this shithole, and makes what most people will see as Strong Images or whatever. It's just visual wordwooze, and the hands are all fucked up. I don't know if people are just discarding the pictures with hands, or is Midjourney's minders have hacked it, but I've noticed that AI generated pictures just don't show hands at all any more. Once you see it, it becomes kind of hilarious the lengths to which the pictures go to hide the hands.

This appears to me to be one of those confluences of culture and technology. Photography appeared at a moment when technology (chemistry) happened to arrive at a very specific moment (what chemicals are light sensitive? what dissolves in what?) that lined up perfectly with a cultural interest in perspective drawing. It's not as if these things were happening all the time, and just lined up this time. Both of those are nearly unique events, which for reasons beyond my ken, occurred at more or less the same time and place.
In this case, we have the post-post-modern cultural phenomenon, in which people who fundamentally have nothing to say because they've never read, done, or experienced anything are dominating large swathes of the media/culture. At the same time we have the technical phenomenon, of machines which can produce more or less the same post-post-modern remixes of stuff, pablum suitable for satiating the masses.

As I recall it works out ok in The Silver Eggheads. I think the writers rise up, smash the machines, and a public thirsty for original work greets them with open arms. I see signs that we might be heading there (not that the photographers will smash the machines, photographers love machines, but the thirsty public with open arms thing.)

I'm not entirely optimistic.


  1. Are emos having a moment?

  2. This is kind of plausible, I guess, and could explain at least some of whats up with AI's trashup crapola:

    "Why, when we can just revisit specific and vibrant and weird and nostalgic times, would we even make anything new?"