In the movie Little Women, Jo March’s (Saoirse Ronan) inky fingers give her away as the writer rather than just the bearer of someone else’s manuscript; as she claims initially in the newspaper editor’s office, she’s nervously visiting. The editor decisively strikes through many pages before accepting a story and making an offer of payment. Thrilled to the core, Jo March runs through the streets for she had sold her first piece of content!
Content - readers love it and writers enjoy creating it. The types of content are many and good content has driven industries like printing, publishing, broadcast, film, search engines, AI etc.
Scripts and artwork carved and painted onto rocks, metals and other media, have survived the ravages of time to tell us of our collective civilizational histories. Somewhere in our distant past, human intellect created ink, and inks, in turn, helped grow human intellect. It was used to write edicts, laws, religious texts, epics, medical formulations, sensual poetry, taboos, etc., on palm leaves, papyrus, cloth, skins, tablets, etc.
Some of this content, human capital of sorts, is preserved in our museums, giving us a peek into the rich and varied content that was created over millennia.
By name lost - http://www.ethiopianheritagefund.org/assets/garimaConference.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30500382
Once the printing press came into existence in the western world, the spread of the written word gathered momentum like never before. Norms were turned upside down - like the travelling performers of the ancient world, creative work came to the hands and homes of the interested reader. Inks were morphed to suit the new technology, even as oral traditions and ancient methods of writing struggled to stay alive with vanishing patronage.
Ink continued to be used in our creative endeavours. The written word came into its own in the modern world, and creativity in writing be it religious texts, treatises, scripts for movies, music, discourses, cartoons, comics, essays as we know them, propaganda fliers, plays, educational textbooks, news articles, etc., flowed like a perennial river. Content ruled.
When radio and television became easily available technologies, broadcast media grew phenomenally. Interestingly, radio took people back to the oral culture of listening to content. Then silent films moved content back to being delivered via moving images. When the talkies happened, it was like magic - storytelling took on an immersive aspect. Content had to lend itself to this aspect.
After television made its debut into living rooms, it was like a noisy entertainer at home. As channels were available round the clock and people were spoilt for choice, there was an immense demand for content for specific genres. The viewer could change their content at will. In fact, content was the wave on which countries surfed into the imagination of peoples from other countries. The soft power of media giants has been the theme of many articles and/or research papers.
Today we are at a juncture, where the ink manufacturing industry is struggling with the challenge of the print publications being in decline, thanks to the growth in digital media. Does this signify a decrease in human creativity? Will content abdicate the throne?
Not really. We are just witnessing change.
In Jan ‘96, Bill Gates wrote an article titled Content is King, in which he listed out how content would surf the new medium called the Internet. Although it might seem like he foretold and titled his article with great clairvoyance much before Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc., came into existence, the title was a phrase coined and used by others, much before him.
In the article Bill Gates states,
"Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting."
Just as he had predicted, publishing has changed remarkably. When TV entered our homes, we did not see content riding in on individual devices delivered for the watcher’s sole consumption. There is big money in content today, but the biggest money off it is not made by the writer (on a side note, was it ever?) It’s made by companies which showcase content for us depending on our likes and dislikes; tech companies, which host our content and run search engines using artificial intelligence(AI) models, to list out the content available. It is to a writer or publisher’s advantage to make sure their content is ‘found’ and listed right at the top of the list of suitable content.
In these times, it is easy for a writer to put out their work, but will it be read by many? Will the right audience read it? The answer is neither short nor simple.
Is the content landscape changing?
Of course it is.
Is this change observable?
In these fast-paced tech-driven times, it is.
Will it be disruptive?
Yes, it will be. The extent will depend on circumstantial parameters.
What might be the disruptor?
Can an AI model write?
Here’s an article written/generated by GPT-3, an AI language model. It was fed question prompts by an undergrad who got them from The Guardian newspaper. Eight essays were generated and the editors at the Guardian edited them to finalize the essay.
Can one tell it’s written by an AI model?
Perhaps some can, while most might not be able to distinguish.
Will AI’s writing be indistinguishable from a human’s in general?
We have to wait and see.
Content has been king even as the carousel of media has been turning over the centuries; cave walls, papyrus, print, radio, TV, films and now the Internet. Writers have historically used tools to write - be it charcoal, the pen, typewriter and now a computer. As Bill Gates wrote in that article mentioned earlier,
When it comes to an interactive network such as the Internet, the definition of “content” becomes very wide. For example, computer software is a form of content-an extremely important one…
Even on a computer, writers themselves use AI knowingly and unknowingly via generated templates, grammar checks, plagiarism checkers etc., in their everyday writing. This opens up an unending stream of questions:
Will the AI model just take over a writer’s intellectual space?
Will readers feel cheated?
Will AI models be able to tell another model’s work?
Whose name would go under author?
Is it intellectual laziness of a sort to use AI models to write?
Will human biases creep into AI models and morph into stranger biases?
Many of these are concerns which have been visited every time a new disruptive technology has entered our world, but in the case of AI, there is an additional deep-seated fear humans have - the fear of losing control over this planet. It is ironic that much of this fear has been fed by the very content that was created by very human minds!
As work on AI models in various fields progresses, intellectuals and scientists are parallelly spending time on the ethics of AI and robotics - understanding the challenge to our current conceptual systems. This in itself is a creative exercise. Just like human creativity flourished in the years before the growth of writing, it will march on and content will continue to rule; albeit differently.