I was possibly not the only writer to feel a sense of disquiet when I read about novels not just written by artificial intelligence — but also nearly winning awards. This wasn’t so much (as with so many other jobs, including possibly my marketing day job) a fear of being replaced, as much as it was a fear of losing our humanity — our ability to connect with one another through fiction.
We live in an age when we already stand to lose the opportunity to connect, at unprecedented rates. This is a fact brought to light last month by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, whose “Eliminating the Human,” a piece adapted for the MIT Technology Review, outlines the ways in which apps, algorithms, and the hardware that channels them are slowly replacing the people we once relied upon to help us make connections:
The drivers who take us from Point A to Point B. The book and music store clerks who give us personal recommendations on what to read or listen to next. The grocery baggers who help us find what we need. The teachers who help us understand new concepts. As Byrne points out, “Human interaction is often perceived, from an engineer’s mind-set, as complicated, inefficient, noisy, and slow. Part of making something “frictionless” is getting the human part out of the way.”
Byrne also notes, however:
“With humans being somewhat unpredictable (well, until an algorithm completely removes that illusion), we get the benefit of surprises, happy accidents, and unexpected connections and intuitions. Interaction, cooperation, and collaboration with others multiplies those opportunities.”
The drive to be understood, rather than to understand
This, for me, is the crux of the issue. Not only does his paragraph describe nearly all my closest friendships in life; it also describes all my favorite books. Yet I’m afraid that these kinds of connections are harder and harder to come by. As people pass from our lives, taking with them the opportunity to connect with them, authors continue to struggle to make a living in an oversaturated book market. It seems that people are more interested in writing — communicating their point of view, being understood — than in reading, listening — understanding.
It’s a poignant irony as we authors continue to give and receive advice about “what readers want”; heeding this advice helps us make sales, a living, but does it help us connect? Ostensibly so, if you’re an author with a newsletter and a social media platform, and yet Byrne writes of social media:
“This is social interaction that isn’t really social. While Facebook and others frequently claim to offer connection, and do offer the appearance of it, the fact is a lot of social media is a simulation of real connection…. We are fed what we already like or what our similarly inclined friends like (or, more likely now, what someone has paid for us to see in an ad that mimics content). In this way, we actually become less connected—except to those in our group.”
Making the opportunities when they don’t present themselves
Then why keep writing? I suppose that for me, it’s tied to my experience as a regular business traveler. I became hypersensitive over time to the transactional, shallow nature of most interactions; those fleeting kindnesses shared in an airport customs and immigration line, or on the drive from the airport to the hotel. You can’t expect to see most people ever again, and to be sure, there’s a risk that you’ll connect with the wrong people.
Yet, when you feel that spark of connection, it’s hard to let go. Some of my dearest friendships both online and offline have continued on from that point, and I suppose that’s what I hope to inspire in readers. When you yourself have experienced the way a book can help you heal from a bad relationship or a toxic work environment, especially at a time when you felt otherwise all alone, how can you not want your words to help others in that same way?
The point isn’t to argue that technology shouldn’t do what it’s doing, then, but rather to argue that we need to adapt by consciously seeking out connections, even — perhaps especially — in the most unexpected of places.
We may not be able to force these things, but neither should we slam the door on the possibility. The shuttle driver you almost avoid small talk with because you think it’s excruciating could be your new best friend; the book with the cover that looks the same as the rest could conceal your way to reclaim a part of yourself you thought you’d forgotten.
As a result, most of my reading these days takes place as the result of a connection: purchases made after a reading attended with friends, or library books curated by my husband who works there, as well as purchases of new material by authors who I’ve found have a way of connecting with my own experience of life.
As the pace of society increases, how do you consciously connect with both books and people?