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FROM LITERATURE TO BITERATURE

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By W.M. Osadnik

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The Montréal Review, August 2014

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"From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution" by (McGill-Queen's Press, 2013)  

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Computers and literature, computers and art, computers and creative imagination—among hundreds of questions related to the relationship between human mind and machines, Peter Swirski also asks the most important one: under which conditions an intelligent computer would be capable of creative writing? This is not a hokum or a turn of phrase: he deliberately links the question, and the answer, to computers acquiring an ability to function linguistically in the world and, as corollary, to create sophisticated art, in this case nonhuman literature (biterature).

As Swirski spares no effort to argue and document, in the near future we can expect computer authors (computhors) to embark on the self-ratcheting evolutionary path similar to that which was the basis for a natural evolution, except millions of times faster. This is a mind-blowing concept but, as he explained in his popular online interview with Critical Margins, “I’m trying to explore the ultimate future of literature by exploring the nature of beings who will create it. If my scenario is correct, ‘biterature,’ as written by computer authors or ‘computhors,’ will be a manifestation of the beginning of the end of the cultural world as we know it.”

In that sense, even though From Literature to Biterature is written by a literary scholar, is really a book about our human future in the age of thinking machines or, as Swirski put it to Critical Margins, “a book for everyone with a hungry mind who cares about the future of books and the future of humankind.” It plunges us headlong into the future demarcated by literature on the one hand and by an array of disciplines such as the cognitive sciences, the evolutionary sciences, and psychology on the other. Its pivotal premise is that at a certain point in the already foreseeable future, computers will become capable of creating works of literature in and of themselves. In a series of brilliant, cogent, erudite, and articulate chapters Swirski explores what conditions would have to obtain for machines to become capable of creative writing, what would be the literary, cultural, and social consequences of these singular capacities, and what role evolution might play in the process.

Bearing this brave new future in mind, consider the following seven points selected almost at random:

  1. Algorithms control more than half of the world’s financial transactions and 100 percent of high frequency trading.
  2. The Pentagon announces drastic reduction in its piloted air force while investing heavily in drones.
  3. The Pentagon’s research wing DARPA develops novel types of biorobots some of which consume biomass and are thus independent of human energy supply.
  4. Mirror neurons in humans (apes have them too) are even more attuned to detecting intentional actions than originally thought.
  5. Google integrates its search platforms in order to make them compatible with forthcoming code supposed to work with human-level semantics.
  6. The number of new book titles released worldwide approach 3,000,000.
  7. Robots increasingly edit Wikipedia pages as the website finds it more and more difficult to hire and retain human editors.

What do all these futurologically sounding news stories have in common? All have appeared in mainstream international media in the first few months of 2014. What is really uncanny, however, is that all these developments and more are comprehensively discussed and analysed in Swirski’s book. How the author succeeded in anticipating these developments in a book that was published in 2013 and presumably researched during the preceding years is difficult to fathom, but it does make him a contemporary Nostradamus and his book the best thing that appeared since Future Shock by Alvin Toffler.

The contents of From Literature to Biterature are nothing short of fascinating, unsettling, and profound—the kind of book that Alvin Toffler would have written if he were a literary/cultural scholar with a profound grounding in philosophy and a deep appreciation for evolution. There is clearly no other book like this around, if only for the simple reason that scientists/roboticists concerned with the future do not talk about literature and culture while literary/cultural studies scholars are concerned with literary and cultural history and not the future. This is also apparent from the book’s Introduction which mentions two literary studies that purport to explore the future of computer literature and which, as quickly becomes apparent, have exactly nothing to say about it—or about the myriad other topics that animate Swirski’s book.

From Literature to Biterature is a one-of-a-kind intellectual oeuvre which transcends the confines of literary studies, philosophy, and even futurology. But more than a portable encyclopedia, it is also a thrilling and page-turning read. Early on Swirski puts his cards on the table by telling us that he is writing an adventure story for the mind, and he is not kidding. I can hardly think of anyone else who could so effortlessly and colorfully integrate philosophy of mind, robotics, literary studies, cultural trends, futurology, evolution and many other areas of intellectual analysis: names like Steven Pinker, Mat Ridley, or Douglas Hoftstadter spring to mind as possible yardsticks for measuring the originality and the pleasure of reading From Literature to Biterature.

Except that Pinker, polymath as he is, has next to nothing to say about art whereas Swirski is one of the foremost theorists of literature and literary critics today. Except that Ridley has never put an original thought in his bestselling books—his deserved renown is based on his talent for making difficult concepts easy and accessible to the general reader, an ability that Swirski shares in spades. Perhaps the best book to which Swirski’s can be compared is Hoftstadter’s classic Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, inasmuch as both are a thoroughly interdisciplinary melange of ideas and provocative speculations on the subject of art, computers, and philosophy. To this reader’s mind, however, the practical advantage of From Literature to Biterature is that it stands at about half the size of Hofstadter’s monumental 500.

All in all, I cannot remember the last time I was so enthralled by an academic study that reads like a supercharged detective story. Indeed, although the publisher’s intended audience may have been the academic population, From Literature to Biterature is certainly written in a way that could make it a crossover hit with general audiences primed by science-fiction blockbusters to anticipate the future. Here the names of Lem and Turing which feature in the book’s subtitle are practically guarantees of success.

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 Wacław M. Osadnik is a Professor of Slavic languages and literatures in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta. His research interests and publications address the history of Polish language, literature and culture, history and theory of translation and Slavic linguistics. His recent publications are devoted to the polysystem theory of translation and Stanisław Lem (Lemography: Stanislaw Lem in the Eyes of the World with Peter Swirski - Liverpool University Press, 2014.)

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