Thursday, March 26, 2015

Commentary – Crime Fiction – Perhaps A Whole New Meaning to Formula

James Patterson

Thriller author James Patterson is famous for many reasons, not the least of which is his prolific output. Checking out his bibliography, it’s clear he could have his very own book of the month club. He is subject to praise for his generosity to independent bookstores and a target for criticism for hiring co-writers theoretically making his name merely a brand.  Is this okay?  After all, Andy Warhol had his  famous factory to produce his work.  And some of the world’s greatest artists had apprentices who could color inside the lines drawn by the masters. In Patterson’s case it is reported he writes a thorough outline, passes it along to one of his co-writers and monitors the progress. This works well with formula writing.

Many commercially successful writers have developed or discovered a formula. A new book is a matter of changing little bits and pieces in a proven format. It’s an almost paint-by-numbers approach.  Many writers have invented a product by doing this. They can teach others how to make it. But the Patterson principle lends itself to the next stage:  Co-writers, schmo-writers… who needs them? The real fun is yet to begin.

But, let me digress a moment.  I’m home a lot.  And I am in the demographic that is highly prized by telemarketers. Old and, according to some marketing folks, more easily fooled. I get the irritating phone calls sometimes four or five times a day. I’ve won a free trip on a riverboat.   Or there’s a problem with my credit card I’m told by an official at some obscure security company. Someone else wants to talk to me about my mortgage. I don’t own a home.  Workers are in my neighborhood, I’m told. They are willing to clean out my heating vents on the cheap. I don’t have vents. I’ve always felt sorry for the individual telemarketers, many selling marginal products or services or maybe not even marginal. I’m not nice to them. I should be.  They are a dying breed.  The sad truth for those who staff the phones, their employers no longer need live employees to disrupt my nap or interrupt a shower with their scams.

“Hello,” I said.

A lovely woman’s voice says, “I’ve finally reached you.  You are hard to find.” She laughs.  She has a lovely laugh.

I am? I thought. I’ve had the same phone number, same address, and the same email for 25 years. I’ve got FB, a blog, and a web site.  I may be many things, but I’m not difficult to find. Good God, woman, I’m even googleable.

While I’m thinking, she politely asks how I am? So warm.  I’m embarrassed.  I don’t recognize her lovely voice, but I feel I ought to.

“I’m sorry, who is this?” I finally ask.

“Sarah,” she said.  “I hope this is a good time to talk.”

Her voice is just a little too good, and the timing seems to be a little off.

“Are you real?” I ask.

“What do you mean?” She laughs. She is amused, it seems.

“You don’t sound real,” I said.

“I am real,” she said.

She wasn’t. It didn’t take much to take the early-stage replicant beyond her capacity to respond. She was merely a series of recorded sentences, strung together in ways to correlate to predictable callee responses through voice recognition software.   This technology, of course, is already at work on car computers, telephone tree responses, smart phones. Human to human interaction is declining. We all know that.

The digital revolution isn’t all bad. I prefer email to telephones, for the most part. I am my own administrative assistant now.  I like ATMs, and am my own bank teller.  After we learned to pump our own gas, supermarkets decided we could bag and check out our own groceries. The dehumanizing continues. Taxi cab companies don’t need dispatchers and, soon, it appears, they won’t need drivers. We will summon a driverless car with our smart phone. Amazon is testing drone delivery of products. Human labor is expensive.

Now, I’m about to de-digress. A few days ago, electronic information writer Shelley Podolny wrote a piece in The New York Times in which paragraphs from two sport stories, one written by a human and another by a machine (algorithms), were juxtaposed. I couldn’t tell which was written by whom (or by which). But it’s not just robojournalism.  With powerful search engines, and continually refined artificial intelligence, what can’t be written by HAL or Watson? What most of us don’t know, Podolny says, is a bunch of it already is. A French business school has 100,000 such algorithmically written books available now on Amazon, she says.

Life is change. Change or die. Of course you’re going to die anyway. But until that happens, let’s figure out how this might work.  Let’s take the next step.  Patterson doesn’t really need a human writing partner. Humans are so inefficient.  They have to eat and sleep. They have health problems, want vacations, naps.  Jeez.  So inefficient.  Just feed the machine some variable data, select a genre, a style and push a button.  A book.  You now have the next blockbuster by that prolific author, Ignatious Benedict MacGoogle.

Who needs Patterson? Maybe you’ve never been able to write a thank you note, but with the right software, you can write your own damn novel or create a blend of your favorite mysteries – Murder on the Maltese Express or Farewell, My Godfather, or The Silence of the Mockingbirds.

1 comment:

Teri-on-the-sandbar said...

For whom do robowriters write? Roboreaders? While waiting for Silence of the Mockingbirds to hit the shelves, you've given us much to think about. These are not pretty thoughts. I am reminded of a question Eliz asked me once: What will we all do when computers do all the writing? Hmmmmm. I'm also reminded of how much fun it is to watch your mind work! Wow.