The Future of Writing under A.I., Secular Pilgrimages, and Repatriating James Joyce
First up: Should the remains of James Joyce be moved ahead of the centenary of Ulysses in 2022? “Dublin city councillors are hoping to fulfil wishes of the writer and his wife, which were denied after his death in Switzerland in 1941.”
The strange appeal of secular pilgrimages: “One of the most moving pilgrimages I’ve been on was a trip seven years ago to a craggy promontory in Norway on the small lake Eidsvatnet. This was the site of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s custom-built house near the town of Skjolden. It was difficult to find, hard to access, and all that remained were the foundations. But as I sat there and looked out across the water, I felt strangely moved. On my return home, I learned of plans to rebuild the philosopher’s house – remarkably, it still existed. In 1958, it had been moved to the town and re-erected with modifications. The original windows were stored in a barn. At the time, reconstruction of the home in its original location seemed like a pipe dream. The Wittgenstein Foundation in Skjolden wasn’t even formally established until 2014. But in recent years the plan gathered momentum, helped by the owner’s threat to demolish it if it wasn’t bought from him. In March 2017, the county of Sogn og Fjordane and the local bank Luster Sparebank each gave a million Norwegian krona ($110,000) to the project. In May 2018, reconstruction began. Work was completed quickly. Jans, one of the project’s local builders, told me that, with these pre-cut timber homes, ‘it’s just like building Lego’.”
Salvador Dalí etching stolen from San Francisco gallery: “The piece is titled Burning Giraffe (1966), and it was insured, along with all the other works in the gallery’s current show on Geary Street, which is devoted to the famed Surrealist. The thief was caught on surveillance footage taking the piece from its place on an easel, which was momentarily unsecured from a lock-and-cable tether that normally secures it. The footage shows the swindler scooping the piece up into his right arm and immediately carrying it down the street.”
Rosemary Goring reviews a new edition of Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories: “A brittle, fearful awareness pervades many of these stories, their characters sensing the hazard of invisible lines that, once crossed, will have irrevocable consequences.”
Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg partner with Substack to create new publication. “It’s the first time that Substack has done this: The company, which announced about $15 million in VC funding over the summer, has until now catered only to individual writers, not larger publications.”
In search of the real China: “A longtime Hudson Institute scholar, formerly on the staffs of senators Henry Jackson and Daniel Moynihan, Horner is the author of the authoritative two-volume history, Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context (2002) and Grandeur and Peril in the Next World Order (2015). In these—and in his latest, A China Scholar’s Long March—Horner delves among the Chinese archives and in the country itself to find the real China. For Horner, there is nothing inevitable about either the nation-state ‘China’ or its rising. That’s what makes A China Scholar’s Long March such an indispensable volume.”
Essay of the Day:
What is the future of writing under artificial intelligence? John Seabrook takes a stab at answering this question in The New Yorker (with the help of A.I.):
“I glanced down at my left thumb, still resting on the Tab key. What have I done? Had my computer become my co-writer? That’s one small step forward for artificial intelligence, but was it also one step backward for my own?
“The skin prickled on the back of my neck, an involuntary reaction to what roboticists call the ‘uncanny valley’—the space between flesh and blood and a too-human machine.
“For several days, I had been trying to ignore the suggestions made by Smart Compose, a feature that Google introduced, in May, 2018, to the one and a half billion people who use Gmail—roughly a fifth of the human population. Smart Compose suggests endings to your sentences as you type them. 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—and, in my case, composed a sentence with an A.I. for the first time.
“Paul Lambert, who oversees Smart Compose for Google, told me that the idea for the product came in part from the writing of code—the language that software engineers use to program computers. Code contains long strings of identical sequences, so engineers rely on shortcuts, which they call ‘code completers.’ Google thought that a similar technology could reduce the time spent writing e-mails for business users of its G Suite software, although it made the product available to the general public, too. A quarter of the average office worker’s day is now taken up with e-mail, according to a study by McKinsey. Smart Compose saves users altogether two billion keystrokes a week.
“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.
“And yet until now I’d always finished my thought by typing the sentence to a full stop, as though I were defending humanity’s exclusive right to writing, an ability unique to our species. I will gladly let Google predict the fastest route from Brooklyn to Boston, but if I allowed its algorithms to navigate to the end of my sentences how long would it be before the machine started thinking for me? I had remained on the near shore of a digital Rubicon, represented by the Tab key. On the far shore, I imagined, was a strange new land where machines do the writing, and people communicate in emojis, the modern version of the pictographs and hieroglyphs from which our writing system emerged, five thousand years ago.”
Photos: Purple clouds before the storm
Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.