The Content Machine Revolution

There is a revolution happening on the Internet and you haven’t noticed it. That’s okay, that’s the point. Artificial intelligences (AIs) capable of producing readable and coherent text, incredible images, and even videos are among us and already create much of the content that appears in our wanderings around the web and on social media.

We are living the machine revolution — of content.

Systems like OpenAI’s GPT-3 create long form text from commands or short sentences. A few days ago, Meta launched a version fluent in academic writing, Galactica, to the horror of experts, worried about the instrumentalization of this new tool to give a tone of legitimacy to half-baked theories.

In recent years, startups have been founded on the promise of convincing texts with the push of a button. They are already used in the day-to-day operations of many other companies, as Christopher Mims revealed in his column in the Wall Street Journal.

“It is probably impossible that the majority of people who use the web on a day-to-day basis haven’t at some point run into AI-generated content,” said Adam Chronister, owner of a search engine optimization (SEO) studio.

These startups — SEO.ai, TextCortex AI, Neuroflash, among others — address a “pain” of small and medium-sized companies that, with tight marketing budgets, have until now resorted to human copywriters to produce superficial articles as part of their customer acquisition strategies.

These are articles created from searches to other articles available on the web, repackaged with SEO techniques, whose goal is to be well positioned in searches on Google and other search engines to, in the end, sell a product or service. Preferably for as little money as possible. In short, the content production industry.

Researcher Kate Eichhorn, from MIT, is fascinated by content as an object of research. So much so that she wrote a book, entitled Content, to rescue the origins, classify and, in the end, try to define this term, which is so elastic and that, in recent years, has become part of our daily lives, even becoming a profession, the infamous “content creator”.

Her vision of content is not the most encouraging:

The rise of the content industry is the ultimate expression of neoliberalism. Under the logic of neoliberalism, everything—politics, desire, sociality, art, culture, and so on—is reduced to mere nodes in the market economy. Reducing all forms of cultural production to content not only conveniently erases the specificity of different types of cultural production but also effectively ensures that all types of cultural production can be easily substituted for each other and exchanged. After all, all content is part of a single and indistinguishable flow.

It’s a very interesting little book, this one by Kate. In the conclusion, when addressing automation, Kate acknowledges that “content and the content industry are here to stay; in fact, much of the damage has already been inflicted”.

The author talks about “resistance” as a remedy to the flood of empty content, about valuing what is made by people like us, with any intention other than to sell and/or circulate (which is the same in content logic). Nothing that will curb or stop industrial scale production, but a healthy resistance, still possible.

In a more optimistic vein, Arvind Narayanan, professor of computer science at Princeton University, draws a parallel between writer AIs and the calculator in the classroom environment.

As computer-generated text become compelling, inexpensive, and pervasive, our relationship with this medium changes. How can this shift be exploited to the benefit of us, the flesh and blood people?

Students have already figured out that AIs write well and have started using them to do school lessons, especially the boring and meaningless “write five paragraphs on the benefits of biotechnology” (his example), which teach nothing about writing, critical thinking, nor biotechnology.

Since the texts generated are somehow unique, it is not as easy a cheat to detect as the infamous Wikipedia copy and paste. Even if all students in a class use the same AI, each will have a different, unique text to present to the teacher.

For Arvind, the change that is needed is similar to the introduction of the calculator — at first despised in the classroom, then incorporated, and now indispensable. Resistance is useless, we will have to adapt. This may even prove to be a positive thing:

In some cases, the point of assigning an essay is to teach writing skills or critical thinking. The availability of language models has not obviated these skills. […] [T]here are many ways to change the exercise so that the tools aren’t helpful. These changes take advantage of inherent limitations of language models that are unlikely to be fixed soon.

Let’s make no mistake, though. In the day-to-day pressure, content-generating AIs will be used willy-nilly to produce whatever they can. Laziness, that all-too-human feeling, almost always wins out, and industry incentives will be increasingly tempting.

In recent weeks, general-purpose applications have launched their AI systems, such as Canva and Notion. Google already helps the user write emails, LinkedIn suggests pre-defined and contextual messages in conversations and comments.

Kate explicitly says that resisting is not a “neo-luddist” act, but… maybe it is? It is easy to envision a near future in which people who write their texts by themselves, without the aid of an artificial intelligence, will be seen as eccentrics, craftsmen of the word.

There will be less space, it’s true, because you can’t compete with machines in volume, and that’s what content is all about. Back to Kate:

So, what is the content industry? In essence, it is an industry that generates revenue from the production and/or circulation of content alone. The content in question sometimes conveys information, tells a story, or entertains, but it doesn’t need to do any of these things to circulate effectively as content (again, consider the Instagram Egg).

When thinking about content, I always remember this funny column (in Portuguese) by Ricardo Araújo Pereira in which he gives a scathing critique of the internet — the kind of thing a machine probably couldn’t do; or maybe it could, after devouring Ricardo’s columns:

For example, whenever someone who writes, sings, or acts says they produce content for the Internet, I get a little bit of a chill.

Never in the entire history of the world has a winemaker said that he produces content for bottles, because the winemaker respects wine too much to say such a thing. Not least because he is not particularly dazzled by the existence of bottles. Yes, bottles are useful, but it’s the wine that matters.

However, there are artists who have such admiration for the Internet that they are satisfied to say that they produce content for it.

We continue steadily in the production of wine, I mean, words.

Discuss @ Hacker News.

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