On Robots Writing & Marriage Equality

Can computers replace writers? It’s a curious question, and I’ve been looking at its various permutations for about ten years now. With companies like Narrative Science, ICON, and  Automated Insights, things are finally getting interesting.

(Check out AI’s CEO Robbie Allen on video.) Years ago, I talked to my favorite developers about how we could take the thousands of notes, interviews and background information in Write2Market‘s project database in order to automate the scripting of bios, case studies and white papers.

The possibility of teaching a fuzzy logic program to write from templates and plenty of sample text looked promising. In the business writing world, it’s 90% formula and 10% inspiration anyway. I just didn’t want to pay for the programming time personally, so we stopped at a number of how-to-write guides like this one, and left it at that.  I knew deeper pockets than mine would have every incentive to take the path. Indeed, it’s happening–a little more slowly than I expected.

What surprises me, is that the writing community tends to think this is a BAD thing.

Before you pull out your carving knives to excise my liver, let me get my bona fides as a writer out there. I was first published at 13. My undergrad degree, summa cum laude, is in professional writing. In my freelance career, I pitched and was paid by some of our best journalism houses, from the Chicago Trib to the Washington Post. A little less prestigious, I’ve written cover stories in local business journals and lifestyle weeklies, stood up at poetry slams, and even today when I need to find myself, I start with writing about it. Last week when my Grandmother passed away, I had to put it in poetry. It’s just how I’m made.

So you see, I’m part of this writing tribe. And our tribe is evolving, maybe a little faster than we’re totally comfortable with, courtesy of all the technology mediating our work.

Technology grows up fast–it can enjoy many more generations (iterations) within the one generation a professional’s human life time. Writers aren’t alone on this journey of being pushed by technology, but we may be among those who stand to benefit the most.

The issue of whether we embrace robots writing (automated writing)  or fear it hinges on how we define the work of writing. If a writer’s work is stringing sentences together smartly, with a fine eye for AP or MLA style and an above-average vocab, go ahead and call the hearse. Writing will go the way of the town crier, buggy wheel makers, the gas lamp lighter, and the professional hatter.

Or, will it? Supported by systems capable of doing information assembly and presentation, the role of “writer” could be elevated to connecting powerful trends, story telling, and unusual levels of insight. I believe that’s exactly where we need to be. A little support from smart systems that can sift, filter and present prose is going to free our talent to make a real difference.

“Writer” is another word for scribe, priest, and wizard–and also for secretary and book keeper. The sacred  side of the writing calling –influencing our world and enlightening souls–gets confused with counting, editing, headlining, formatting, and software mastery. That stuff is the apprentice piecemeal we writers practice all our lives.

This confluence of keeping clean records and mediating Mystery is inherent in the evolution of our profession for its 10,000 year history. Witing STARTED as pictorial representations of important IDEAS. It then got conscripted in two directions–one for merchants and one for priests. Writing that worked for record keeping has stayed tightly coiled against writing as a sacrament of civilization. (More here on that.)

In a world where basic prose is developed on demand (think Siri answering you, but smarter), what’s left is what matters more to the soul. The work of civilization–inspiring, encouraging, whistle blowing, philosophizing, making sense of the madness, enlightening–that’s what’s left.

It’s more than enough to keep writers engaged and employed. In fact, we need more time to do this work in such a fast changing planet.  We catalyze change. Our highest gifts are needed most–not our keen ability to spot an unparallel construction or report on the acid rain index, the state of refrigeration in India, or the myriad other minor details that smart systems and satellites can manage. We let computers do accounting now, and people interpret. Accountants are no less well paid today than before Quickbooks.

So for writers, in short, I think systematizing information acquisition and presentation separates the “jot and tittle” tracking of our craft from the spiritual quest. Finally.

You can see this playing out in the news today. As I write this, there are a lot of stories about Marriage Equality–the legality of California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) law. Where do you think a writer’s real gift gets exercised? In reportage on the legal history and jurisprudence, or perhaps the financial implications y based on our current social security settings and income tax?  Or do you believe as I do that the true writer, even without taking sides, can showcase the nuance of the situation? As you read about this issue, which stories have helped you most as a person–the ones about the legal and financial fine points, or the ones that help you be more enlightened, not simply more  informed?

Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

I’m ready to see writing broken back apart–separating the fact assemblage from the insight. This is my great hope for what the advent of automated writing does for the writing professional. Let’s break ourselves a little, even break a few things off, so we can grow.