Rise of the Robot Publishers
Here’s a quick observation that comes to mind: writing as a profession is becoming increasingly automated. My creative writing professor was mentioning in class today how, in ye olde days of yore (before the internet) it was customary for new writers to attend book launches and writing festivals to meet editors and industry professionals just to get published. Promoting one’s work was once done by driving around the country on an endless procession of book signings.
This is in stark contrast to my experiences as a new writer. I live on the opposite side of the planet from my publisher; I’ve never met my editors or even heard their voices. When I want to promote my book, I hit up book blogs and Twitter — and even there, about 50% of the Tweets I see are just auto-scheduled, auto-Tweeted ads to self published Kindle books. Basically, thanks to technology, we can hand over the production and marketing of our books to robots and never need speak to a human again. The thing is…isn’t the whole point of being a writer to engage with other people? Kinda loses its effect when it’s just a Twitter-bot trying to sell you something.
Frightening thought: we’re basically living in the dystopian wasteland from the Terminator series. The robot uprising is happening. Machines now control our most important resource — information.
This is what a publishing house will look like in 20 years:
The fact is, the technological singularity is coming (as sci-fi authors continually remind us). Robot editors are becoming a necessary means of regulating all of the information available to us. According to Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, the internet is estimated to be over five million terabytes in size. There’s just too much information for any human editor to conceivably keep track of it all. In a sense, we even already have automated newspapers in the form of paper.li and Storify, where a computer pieces together news articles from external sources with minimal human direction. Even Wikipedia is mainly run by robots, because far too many articles are posted each day to possibly be screened by human eyes. Of course, I’ve yet to see a literary journal or a publishing house run through something like paper.li, but it’s still pretty interesting to think about.
I have to admit though, it’s things like this that — as a writer — make me nervous about online media. How does a machine determine what kind of issues need to be explored, and how can an unthinking entity possibly understand social context? I’ve always considered these the main duties of a writer: to record the stories that make up humanity and to prompt people to think about the meaning of their lives. We have the power to engage people on an emotional level, and to challenge the preconceived notions of society. These are things that (at least until we have sentient robots like Bender from Futurama) that only human beings — actual, living ones — can do. A Twitter spam-bot can give you an ad and an Amazon link, but it can’t really engage with you personally. Good writing is supposed to generate discussion and bring authors and readers together. We should be using social media to help facilitate that discussion, not cut it out entirely. That’s kinda missing the point.
So, what do you guys think? Tell me in the comments (no robots, please).