When Garry Kimovich Kasparov was controversially beaten by the IBM Super Computer Deep Blue, something new entered the culture. Despite claims that Deep Blue may have had some human help, the victory was a symbolic one. The undiscovered country that had been promised by so many writers and fantasised about by so many economists and capitalists may have actually begun.
Today the reality is an economic one. We’ve all sleep walked in to big data, marketing companies that know you better than your parents and ongoing democracy flavoured mechanical issues, but currently stumbling over the horizon is a new type of AI.
We’ll probably complain more about the soon to be unemployed driver’s and operator’s protests than the loss of our driving abilities when our cars, busses and trains become automatic. We may even joke about the disappearance of accountants.
It does seem certain though, to anyone paying the right kind of attention that the industrial economy is about to turn around and mug the working man. What happens next is going to be interesting.
What happen’s though, when we allow AI into our creative lives? There are more than one or two apps out there that claim to improve the writing of the everyday. The New Yorker has already published a piece on the Hemingway App, showing it to be unfavourable to the Nobel Prize winner’s own work. I think I’d prefer it if the app was a guide to where to get drunk and fight.
The app is however, the best part of twenty of my hard-earned. As you’d expect there are free versions. In the best tradition of lazy blogging I picked the first suggested free match, an app called GradeProof.
As is the norm these days when starting the app you are required to sign in. I should probably set up a standalone FB account just for the purposes of apps. (Is this a good idea? Let me know in the comments.)
After signing in, the app takes you through a tutorial process. This is by far and away the best bit of the app. I spend hours wrestling with free picture/video/general editing apps and if I had a penny for every time I’ve wanted to break my phone, break my laptop, break the table my laptop is on and set fire to the house, I’d probably have about £2.36.
The tutorial takes you quickly through the basics of spell checking then asks you about what part of your writing you’d like to improve. Again, this is excellent. Because I’m a writer trying to pick holes in something that I feel might be a threat to me, or my rather marvelous editor I, like The New Yorker writer before me, went straight for the stylistic jugular.
Again, the app is helpful and simple. After finding my way to the ‘Papers’ section it gave me a variety of ways to add a new document. It then showed me step by step how go about this.
Now, here’s where things got clever. After selecting the document it gave me a choice between which type of English I’d like to use. The document I had selected for the app’s delectation was an excerpt from Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
Sleeve’s rolled and fingers clicked I set to asking how the app would reword the passage I’d chosen. Then a snag. Everything had been too good to be true. The app asked me whether I wanted a 7-day free trial. After seven days I’d be eligible to pay £7.99 a month.
Well, in the name of lazy blogging I decided to delve deeper into this fridge full of picnic-type snack ideas.
I went for the free trial.
Here’s the excerpt I chose:
He didn’t owe them explanations. He intended to survive, he had one good reason to survive, and he didn’t care whether they tagged along or not. Both men hung onto their rifles. That was something at least, and Mace was a big man, strong across the shoulders, and with hands that could have spanned one and a half octaves of the pub piano he said he played.
Here’s how GradeProof presented it:
The first sentence passed. No suggestions, no edits. Ian, you’ve done well.
The next sentence, however looked like this:
Oh, dear, Mr McEwan.
The next two sections proved to be almost as problematic. And then things got interesting. The changes suggested, for example, weren’t absolutely settled on. Even though I’d chosen to change various words the app would still highlight those words inviting a sense of unease with one’s choices. Sometimes there was only one choice, and sometimes that choice was bat shittingly mad. Take for instance, the suggestion of the ‘non’ instead of ‘not’ at the end of the sentence. Clearly there is still more work to do. After making things simple and taking the first choice for every edit, I found myself at the tail end of a masterpiece. Possibly.
Here’s a screenshot of the email that shows which choices were made along with the finished passage:
He didn’t owe them explanations. He intended to live, he had one good ground to live, and he didn’t like whether they tagged on or non. Both manpower hung onto their rifles. That was something at least, and Macer was a big human being, potent across the shoulders, and with men that could make spanned one and a one-half octaves of the saloon forte-piano he said he played.
Brilliantly, because I’ve obviously missed the point of this app (clues in the name) it then offered to search THE WHOLE OF THE INTERNET to see whether I’d plagiarised any part of it.
One final thought; in David Shields’ frankly genius book Reality Hunger he suggests to the reader that there could be a new type of writing using samples and ultimately what he refers to as brickolage.
He compares this move to how hip-hop and dance music culture formed out of record collecting sample culture. Perhaps, in a slightly Dada way this app could be the writing equiv of a set of mixing decks.