Matt Walsh (who is too young to remember when the first Indiana Jones movie came out in 1981) summarizes the various critics’ pans of the fifth movie in the franchise. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny will be released on June 30 of this year.
As is often the case, the humorless Walsh sees the downfall of Western Civilization in every cultural artifact. I’m not sure if I can read as many dire messages in these tealeaves as Matt Walsh does. But there are nevertheless some valid questions here, which one might arrive at with or without the assistance of Matt Walsh.
First of all: does the world of entertainment really need 80-year-old action heroes? We’re struggling, as it is, with an 80-year-old president.
Secondly: Isn’t it inevitable that a movie like this, featuring an elderly man teamed up with his spunky, wisecracking goddaughter, is going to hinge on generational and gender-based divides? And isn’t it inevitable that these conflicts are going to rub some people the wrong way, given the current state of the culture wars? (This is a movie that will likely draw equal ire from the “woke” and the “anti-woke” brigades.)
And finally: 142 minutes??? The first movie was only 115 minutes long, and that was in 1981, when attention spans were a lot longer.
I’m as susceptible to 1980s nostalgia as anyone on the planet. I love the 1980s and generally loathe our current era. But even I have to admit: 42 years is at least two decades too long for a movie franchise to go on.
Nevertheless, I’m sure I’ll get around to watching this movie at some point. Like I said: I’m hopelessly susceptible to the siren call of 1980s nostalgia.
Although I have recently ventured back into YouTube, video is not my native environment. Video will always be secondary to writing for me, and always exist primarily as a signal booster for my writing, both in bookstores and here on this website.
Adam Conover is more of a YouTube native than I am, and he recently took down the AI hype machine in a video entitled “A.I. is B.S.”.
Adam’s salient point is the true nature of the danger we face: Not that some super-smart techno-intelligence will take over, but that tech companies will manipulate us into using worse versions of what we already have, simply because they bear the trendy label of “A.I.”
In yesterday’s essay, I explored this in the context of those unusable chatbots that now routinely answer phones at large companies. Adam Conover has many similar examples.
The bottom line is that most commercial, overhyped applications of “A.I.” are problems in search of solutions.
Do AI writing programs fulfill any real market need?
So-called artificial intelligence (actually a misnomer, but we’ll let that slide for our purposes here) has recently been turned to the task of fiction writing. It is now possible to use AI writing tools like Sudowrite to create large bodies of text that can meet the minimal requirements for stories.
This is especially true in genres like romance, fantasy, and fanfiction. Self-published works in these genres have been posted online in large quantities, and are therefore readily accessible to AI bots that scrape and mine content for AI predictive modeling. These genres also rely heavily on repetitive tropes, which further facilitate AI predictive modeling. It isn’t hard to predict what comes next, if the same thing always comes next.
Let’s put aside the question of whether or not AI-authored fiction that meets some minimal standard is possible. Let’s allow that it already is possible.
Instead, let’s consider the question from another angle: does AI-authored fiction meet any discernible market need? Or is this a solution in search of a problem?
There are some tasks that humans don’t perform as well as software, and which humans don’t even want to do.
Take, for example, calculations involving many rows and/or columns of numbers. Even with a calculator and an adding machine, this is a tedious chore that is highly prone to error. That’s why we’re all grateful that we have programs like Microsoft Excel and Apple Numbers.
The first mass-market spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, hit the market in 1979. While not as good as the latest, 21st-century version of Excel, by the early 1980s VisiCalc had largely eliminated the need to perform tedious calculations by hand.
No one—before or since—has complained about “the machines taking over” where spreadsheet software is concerned. Nor has anyone ever claimed that spreadsheet programs don’t fulfill a genuine market need.
Now let’s pick an example closer to the hearts of writers. There was a time when writers who didn’t want to type their own manuscripts had to hire someone else to do it for them.
That meant hiring a typist. The most expensive (and comparatively rare) option was for a typist to sit in a room with the writer while he dictated aloud. More commonly, the typist worked from tape recordings or handwritten documents.
Prior to 1990 or so, manuscript preparation was actually a real problem for most writers. Imagine, in 1985, preparing an 80,000-word novel manuscript for submission to a half-dozen publishers. Self-publishing wasn’t an option in 1985. Amazon was a decade away; and a quarter-century would pass before the Kindle wouldbe invented. Everything that was published had to be submitted to a publisher first. On paper.
I prepared college term papers of a few thousand words back in the 1980s, using nothing but paper, a typewriter, and correction fluid. I found that difficult enough. I can’t imagine preparing the manuscript for an 80,000-word novel that way.
The digital revolution, which includes many AI components, changed all that. Everyone now has convenient access to word-processing software that would have been astounding in 1985. And if the writer doesn’t want to type, speech-to-text software programs like Dragon Dictate can even obviate the need for hitting the keyboard. Dictation software would have seemed like alien technology in 1985!
I’m sure that back in 1985, there was a small cohort of typists who made their living preparing manuscripts for novelists. I’d also bet that such work was low-paying, tedious, and no one’s idea of a dream job.
Software, in other words, does a better job than humans of getting words from a writer’s head into a manuscript format that can be consumed by others. Nor are many people clamoring to serve as low-paid scribes for writers. Once again, you’re going to have a hard time finding Luddites or complainers. No one would deny that digital tools improved the process of manuscript preparation.
But now let’s consider the prospect of turning over the conception and writing of a novel—the actual creative work—to a software program.
Let’s return to those AI-written novels and stories. And—once again—let’s leave aside the question of whether or not a minimally passable product is possible with AI.
The first relevant question is: can AI do the job better? I think the answer to that would have to be a resounding no.
I’ve read some of the fiction texts written by AI in recent months. I’m mildly impressed that software can regurgitate and recombine human-generated stories scraped from the Internet, without completely bungling grammar and syntax.
That allowed, the imitative nature of these stories is clear within a few paragraphs, and immediately recognizable as something written by AI. Every AI story I’ve ever seen is a pale imitation of one that you’ve seen a gazillion times on sites like WebNovel and Wattpad.
Why? Because this is where the AI-generated stories are coming from.
Not every reader will be familiar with Wattpad or even the process of writing fiction. But everyone has experienced the following:
You’re having a problem with your electricity, cable TV, or Internet service. You call the electric company or your cable/Internet provider for help.
A pleasant-sounding female voice answers your call. Then you realize, with a sinking sensation, that you have fallen into the virtual clutches of an AI chatbot.
The AI phone attendant can respond to your questions, after a fashion, but she cannot really understand your problem. She is simply following a series of pre-programmed routines. For that matter, there is no “she”. There are lines of computer code written to fool you into believing there is a “she” there.
Software is incredibly useful for certain intense, narrowly constricted tasks, like adding a list of one hundred four-digit numbers. What software can’t do is tell you what those numbers mean, how you should use them to make a decision about your family’s budget, or the next product line you should introduce at your company. For that, you need human intervention—probably your own knowledge and experience.
Software is largely incapable of integrating and interpreting complex data from diverse sources, and completely incapable of engaging in anything resembling the human process of thinking. My guess is that this will always be the case.
Want proof? Is there any one of us who would rather talk to an AI chatbot than an actual person when we call a company with a pressing problem? Have you ever called the cable company, gotten on the line with an actual human attendant, and asked to be connected to an AI chatbot instead?
Of course you haven’t. Because you know that the AI chatbot is ultimately a sham. Although the phone-answering AI chatbot can fool you initially, it really isn’t adding much value to the process. To get anything done, you’ll need to talk to a person.
Nor is the AI phone-answering chatbot really adding much that is even new, beyond the most superficial level. Back in the 1990s—possibly even the 1980s—there were automated phone menus that enabled you to push “1” for the sales department, “2” for technical support, and so on. The phone-answering AI chatbot is yet another example of an AI solution in search of a real-world problem.
If artificial intelligence cannot improve a process, in the same way that spreadsheet programs can improve the process of large-scale calculations, then what is the point of involving AI at all? More often than not, AI simply gets in the way.
Some people are infatuated with artificial intelligence, and believe that it always adds value. But technology can be superfluous, and even a hindrance, if it isn’t suited to a particular task. How many of us would seriously want to take an F-16 to work, rather than commuting in a comparatively low-tech Honda or Toyota?
At present, the world faces many acute shortages. There is a shortage of cheap, environmentally friendly energy. In many areas, there are shortages of medical personnel. Since the COVID pandemic, there have even been shortages of willing restaurant workers.
But one shortage the world does not face? The world faces no shortage of mediocre, barely passable fiction. Just check the Internet. The Internet is already overflowing with imitative, uninspired fiction that no one wants to read.
This is about economics as much as it is about art. As anyone who has ever tried to make a living with novels can tell you, the marketing/selling of fiction is an uphill battle. Even novels by traditionally published, brand-name authors require dedicated and expensive marketing campaigns. The same is true of the best self-published fiction. It doesn’t sell itself. It has to be marketed.
Is there any point, is there any fulfillment of a genuine market need, in filling the Internet (and perhaps, in some cases, the virtual shelves of online bookstores) with AI-knockoffs of Wattpad novels?
This is why I say that AI-written fiction represents a solution in search of a problem. Yes, I understand that some techno-utopians will consider the idea of an AI-written novel to be irresistibly cool for its own sake. The journalistic class, moreover, is presently infatuated with the concept. Various online publications have been hyping AI writing tools for months now.
But how many of us are interested in consuming the resultant products—the novels themselves? Which would you rather read: the next John Grisham or Stephen King novel, or something scraped from the Internet by a bot, and recombined with a software program?
Until you can come up with a satisfactory answer for that question, you can’t convince me that AI-written fiction fulfills any real market need.
Sometimes the past provides us with a lens for better understanding the present.
In the spring of 2023, Anheuser Busch launched an online marketing campaign that featured Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender social media influencer, as a spokesperson for Bud Light.
This resulted in a backlash and a boycott, with real financial consequences for the company.
But the backlash was predictable. The Bud Light/Dylan Mulvaney campaign did not take place in a vacuum, after all.
In recent years, many corporations have placed biological men in spaces allocated for women. Sports Illustrated has selected multiple transgender (biological male) models for its annual swimsuit issue.
Even Playboy has gotten into the act, thrusting female-presenting, biological male models before its heterosexual male readership.
The idea here seems to be that if you show heterosexual men enough transgender women, eventually they’ll start seeing them as indistinguishable from biological women.
This follows the twenty-first-century pattern of blunt-force culture warfare, something I’ll return to shortly.
But let’s get back to the Bud Light debacle.
It seemed to me that all sides were losers here. Anheuser-Busch was certainly a loser. Bud Light sales tanked, as Bud Light drinkers turned to other beers. The company’s stock value declined, too.
Alissa Heinerscheid, the Anheuser-Busch marketing vice president who had championed the Dylan Mulvaney campaign, was forced to take a “leave of absence”. That’s code in the corporate world for “fired”.
Did LGBTQ people benefit from this? Not really. Anheuser-Busch had just made them cannon fodder in its efforts to promote one of its products.
But our topic here is the 1980s, so I’m going to discuss some gender-bending controversies from the 1980s.
Or rather, gender-bending non-controversies. As it turns out, the 1980s were sometimes gay, and sometimes gender-fluid, too. But in ways that weren’t as deliberately confrontational as what you see in the present.
In 1982, I was 14 years old. My parents had just sprung for a basic cable television package, and it included MTV, then a brand new channel.
MTV played nonstop pop and rock videos. I was an immediate fan.
MTV introduced me to lots of new musical acts. I would subsequently buy the albums of some of them, which was exactly what the corporate minds behind MTV had intended.
On the American popular music scene, the early 1980s was the era of the Second British Invasion. Everyone who was big in youth music during that time seemed to speak with a British accent. MTV greatly facilitated this influx of British pop and rock acts.
One of these was a group called Culture Club. The lead singer of Culture Club, Boy George, appeared to be female. Boy George wore makeup and baggy feminine attire. He wore his hair long and in braids, in a distinctly feminine style.
Boy George’s mannerisms were feminine, too. He didn’t sing in a high-pitched falsetto; but his singing voice was high enough to pass for that of a woman.
Some time elapsed before I even realized that Boy George was not a woman. Sure, I sensed that there was something about the female-presenting singer that was atypical. But I was initially fooled.
Boy George is an extreme example, but he wasn’t the only popular musician in the 1980s to tinker with notions of gender norms. There was a whole subgenre of rock music called “glam rock”, in which male musicians took on deliberately androgynous appearances. This started with David Bowie in the 1970s. By the 1980s, groups like Motley Crue and Ratt were wearing makeup and quasi-feminine hairstyles. Women got into the act, too. Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics wore short hair and masculine business suits.
Culture Club, featuring the gender-fluid Boy George, was enormously popular in the early 1980s. In the fall of 1982, the group’s breakout song, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” reached the number two position on the US charts.
The term “transgender” wasn’t common in the early 1980s, but that’s what Boy George was. He was a man who presented as a woman in public. At the very least, he was a drag queen.
Suddenly, the gender-fluid Boy George was in front of millions of impressionable young people, every time they turned on MTV. And practically all adolescents and teens watched MTV in the 1980s.
If we cast the 1980s in terms of the present, the next logical question might be: when did the backlash start? Where were the alarmed parents, taking to microphones in town hall meetings throughout the country? Where were the calls to boycott cable companies that included MTV in their basic packages?
We didn’t have the Internet in the 1980s, of course. But we did have CNN, network television, newspapers, and radio. There were certainly political and social movements that went “viral” during this period, like the Nuclear Freeze campaign, or the Save the Whales Movement.
But here’s the thing: there was no backlash against all of this gender fluidity on MTV and thoughout popular music. Many adults were aware of Boy George. He was too large of a cultural phenomenon to escape their notice.
In 1984, People magazine ran a cover article about Boy George, with the words, “kids are getting his message”. Yet the adult authority figures of 1984 were notably unconcerned. Boy George did not become a flashpoint in a 1980s version of the culture war.
Was this because the 1980s were more liberal? Hardly. Keep in mind that the 1980s are remembered for their conservatism, and not without reason. Politically, this was an era that belonged to Ronald Reagan in the United States, and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. In many of our institutions, members of the World War II generation still occupied positions of leadership.
A group that called itself the Moral Majority was very active, too. This organization, led by evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell, took very public positions on matters of sex and propriety. For example, the Moral Majority constantly campaigned against convenience stores that sold magazines like Playboy and Penthouse. Hotel chains that offered pay-per-view pornographic movies in guest rooms were put on boycott lists.
And yet, the Moral Majority and its various imitators didn’t care about Boy George, the gender-fluid, female-presenting lead singer of Culture Club.
I don’t ever recall hearing an adult fulminate against this man who dressed up in female attire to sing for young people. Not even once.
But the tolerance of Boy George’s gender fluidity went beyond the adults. What about that most maligned of demographics: young, heterosexual males? You may have been told that the 1980s was an era of “toxic masculinity”. Not in regard to Culture Club, at least, it wasn’t. As a teenage boy in 1982 or 1983, your decision to listen to Culture Club—or to ignore them—wasn’t seen as a statement on your masculinity.
Boy George held back nothing, and still, no one on the right cared. In 1983, he was asked in a television interview whether he preferred men or women. He replied, “Oh, both.” In a 1985 interview with Barbara Walters, Boy George elaborated further, stating that he had had both male and female lovers.
And still, there was no call to shield American children from this bisexual, gender-bending singer who made absolutely no bones about who he was and what he was about.
But why were conservatives so blithely tolerant of Boy George and all this public gender fluidity, in the most conservative era in recent history?
Because other things were different in the 1980s, too. Tolerance went both ways. No one on the right insisted on making Boy George and gender fluidity points of confrontation, because no one on the left did, either. Nor did the people who ran our schools, media outlets, and Fortune 500 companies.
I was in high school during the first half of the 1980s. My teachers were certainly aware of Boy George. Yet none of them suggested in class that maybe some of us should change our gender identification because this famous singer appeared to be doing so. Teachers in American grade schools weren’t making such arguments, either.
Nor would a marketing executive at Anheuser-Busch in 1983 have been foolish enough to troll the company’s core demographic by making Boy George a spokesperson for Bud Light. Bud Light commercials of the 1980s were designed to appeal to the beer’s mostly male, mostly blue-collar customer base. Bud Light ads of that era featured the humorous canine character Spuds MacKenzie, and real women in swimsuits. Some Bud Light marketing campaigns even made use of both in the same ads.
Nor did Boy George—or any of his fans—demand that we pretend Boy George was an actual woman, just because he presented as female in public. In fact, Boy George—who is still around—has publicly taken issue with the contemporary pronoun police.
Back in the 1980s, Boy George wanted to do his thing; and his thing was flamboyant, gender-bending, and bisexual. He didn’t demand that you change your ideas of gender and sexuality in order to accommodate his ideas or his choices.
The main strategy in the culture wars of the twenty-first century seems to be not persuasion, but staking out positions that are practically guaranteed to be inflammatory, then daring the other side to knock a chip off one’s shoulder.
As someone old enough to remember the 1980s, I can report that in regard to most matters, people were a lot more laid back and tolerant then. There was an acceptance of diversity, but it was also understood that diversity went both ways. Boy George represented one kind of diversity. As did the predominantly heterosexual, rough-edged culture of the typical Bud Light drinker. What Alissa Heinerscheid, the now fired marketing VP at Anheuser Busch, dismissively called “fratty” culture.
This sense of moderation on all sides was why Boy George never appeared in a Bud Light ad in the 1980s, and he never incurred the public disdain of Bud Light drinkers. Even as many Bud Light drinkers happily sang along with Karma Chameleon when that song came on the radio, as it so often did.
I like this 1980s pop culture/current events collage. Not sure if this is an original piece of artwork, or something photoshopped. (Photoshop has ways of making photos look like various kinds of hand-drawn artwork, in case you weren’t aware.)
In any event, it brought back some memories for me. Kind of cool, so I thought I would post it here.
The ways in which audiobooks are being made and consumed are in a state of dizzying flux. Artificial intelligence (AI) narration is rapidly becoming a viable alternative.
In fact, it already is a viable alternative: especially for nonfiction, but for fiction, too. (Fiction will just require a little more post-production editing and adjustment.)
Don’t take my word for it.At least two major retailers (Apple and Google) agree. Both companies have rolled out AI narration for titles listed in their online stores as ebooks. Both Apple and Google have invested in in-house technologies for this specific purpose. This means that they see AI narration as the future.
With these olives disgorged from the bottle, big changes in the audiobook landscape are practically inevitable.
As is always the case with change, there will be tradeoffs. Not everyone will be happy with the outcomes.
Let’s start on the production side. For creators, the shift to AI narration might be either exciting or disastrous, depending on which side of the supply chain one finds oneself. Some people will lose their current livelihoods. Others will earn a lot more money as a result of lower production costs.
The future may be difficult for audiobook narrators who aren’t named Scott Brick or January LaVoy. On the other hand, indie authors and small publishers may soon be able to profitably produce audiobooks for low-volume, “long tail” titles.
Consumers will notice changes, too. For audiobook listeners, the changes will mostly be positive. Some consumers will be thrilled with all the new choices available. Within a few more years, there will be thousands more audiobooks on the market, and they should be a lot cheaper than they currently are.
But not all of these new AI projects will be delivered with the same passion and emotional clarity of the best human-narrated audiobooks. This will be less a result of technological limitations, than the inevitable gold rush mentality that may soon grip the audiobook market.
It is now possible to create an AI audiobook that doesn’t sound like the deadpan voice in a 1980s video game. (I’ve used the Google AI narration tool, so I’m speaking from a position of knowledge here.)
But making technology sound human is a process that takes time and effort. It always will. Artificial intelligence isn’t truly “intelligent” like a human being is intelligent. If you want a decent AI recording, you have to listen to each word in the editing phase, and make decisions about its pronunciation and cadence. There is no way to accomplish that by simply pushing a button, or by typing in a few commands.
As is always the case with things that require effort, there will be folks who try to skip essential steps, and rush shoddy products to market. The “tsunami of crap” alarm bells are already ringing. And in some cases, at least, the bell-ringers will have a point.
These your-mileage-may-vary tradeoffs are unavoidable. So is the change. I’m not saying that all this change is a good thing or a bad thing. But if you have any interest in audiobooks—as a writer, narrator, or consumer—you would be wise to learn about these changes. Because they’re definitely coming.
I don’t understand the things that people hype nowadays. Or the things they spend good money on. Maybe I’m out of touch. Or maybe the rest of the world has gone crazy.
This tale begins with Ebanie Bridges, a 36-year-old professional boxer.
Now, before you ask, I have nothing against female boxers, or female athletes in general. Not that I’m a spectator of them, mind you. But then, I don’t watch men’s sports, either. (Hint: if you’re watching more athletics than you’re participating in, you’re probably in danger of becoming a couch potato.)
The aforementioned Ebanie Bridges was recently paid £250,000 just to start an OnlyFans account. That’s a lot of money, sure. But given the number of men plunking down cash on that autoporning site in recent years, why not?
For a mere $12 per month, the desperate, sex-starved male can now view shots of Ms. Bridges in lingerie, overflowing with tattoos and cleavage. Hoo-hah. Grab your willies, guys, your computer mouses, and your credit cards.
But that’s not all. It gets even worse. According to an article in The Sun, Bridges regularly receives “odd requests from ‘paypigs’” who askher for “gnarly things, such as her dirty socks and bathwater.”
The sad part: I have no doubt that men really are requesting such items, and paying good money for them.
I’ve read those reports of testosterone declining. The average 20-year-old man is much less manly than his grandfather was at 40, or even 50. But have millions of red-blooded men now been reduced to…OnlyFans paypigs? Apparently so.
For most of my life, I didn’t consider myself an “alpha male” in the traditional sense of that word. But such yardsticks are relative. So many men have now lowered the bar to such a degree, that even I have reached alpha male status by default.
Those pathetic shells of men who comprise the subscriber base of OnlyFans…they who plunk down their cash not for sex, even, but for onanistic pleasures on a computer screen.
Bare minimum Monday is the latest thing on the Internet—especially TikTok, that wellspring of youthful oversharing.
Bare minimum Monday means what it sounds like: doing the bare minimum at work (especially office jobs) on Mondays.
Slacking on the job at certain times of the week is nothing new, of course. And it isn’t limited to Gen Z white-collar workers. During the 1970s and 1980s, the prevailing wisdom was that you didn’t want to purchase a UAW-made automobile that rolled off the assembly line on Monday or Friday.
But Generation Z seems to be putting its own spin on the concept, to the cheerleading of the mainstream media. CNN gushes that younger workers are using “’bare minimum Monday’ as a form of self-care”.
So goldbricking has now become yet another version of seeking safe spaces and avoiding microaggressions. Just what the younger generation needed: yet another reason for older folks (who still do most of the hiring) to perceive them as effete, fragile, and incompetent.
Of course, there has never been a shortage of 40- and 50-somethings who believe that the younger generation is leading the world straight to perdition. I’m from the original “slacker” generation: Generation X. When I joined the so-called “adult world” as a newly minted college graduate in 1991, I endured the subtle jabs of older colleagues and bosses who quipped that “young people nowadays just don’t know how to put in a full day’s work”. And that was more than 30 years ago.Continue reading “Bare minimum Monday may come back to bite you”
Of all the things overhyped on the Internet at present, so-called AI (artificial intelligence) ranks near the top of the list. (Right after whatever Taylor Swift, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex happen to be doing at the moment.)
Perhaps you’re a techno-utopian and you’re already annoyed with me for being a wet blanket. This technology is freaking amazing, you say. Before you send me an email accusing me of Luddism: I’m not against all AI, as a blanket policy. But much of the AI marketed at consumers is onanistic, yet another solution in search of a problem. AI is not a monolith. There are a few gems, but a lot of coal, too.
For example: the AI in Photoshop that allows me to create a layer mask is clearly worthwhile, and incredibly useful AI. Photoshop is a program of pure genius, that enables the artistically inept—like yours truly—to make composites and image collages with only a journeyman’s grasp of the program. (More complicated artistic tasks, like original illustration, require the hand and eye of a professional, of course.)
On the other hand, my last washing machine had an “AI” sensor that was supposed to detect overloads. The sensor malfunctioned, and basically defined every load as an overload (even a load consisting of three medium-sized bathroom towels).
I had to scrap the entire washing machine. When I purchased my next one, Ispecifically selected a machine without any AI capabilities. It functions perfectly. And since I’ve been using washing machines since the early 1980s, I’m fairly certain that I have the common sense not to overload one, sans AI assistance.
Here’s the point. Sometimes AI is useful, and sometimes it’s like the stuffed birds that briefly appeared on women’s hats in the 19th century, before everyone came to their senses. Washing machines do not need AI. Nor does the phone answering system at your cable company. A menu telling you to press “1” for technical support, “2” for billing, and “3” for sales was always more than adequate. And the number-driven phone menu is early 1990s technology. No one needs an AI voice that sounds sort of like a person, but can’t really do anything extra for you, aside from raising your blood pressure.
In recent months, there has been an endless stream of online hype articles about programs like Sudowrite, ChatGPT, etc. These programs produce walls of text that kinda sorta maybe appear to be stories for a paragraph or two.
The result has been predictable: a vast tsunami of AI-generated fiction, flooding online magazines and Amazon’s self-publishing platform. Clarkesworld reportedly had to temporarily suspend submissions to deal with the glut.
The AI fiction glut seems to be most acute at the level of short stories and children’s books, which are usually no more than a few thousand words. If you’re going to try to write a book using AI in the first place, after all, why stretch your attention span any more than is absolutely necessary?
Many of these books and stories seem to arise from bets. A recent Reuters story describes a book written by a man “who bet his wife he could make a book from conception to publication in less than one day.” The result was a 27-page “bedtime story about a pink dolphin that teaches children how to be honest”. Make of that what you will.
This trend is also driven by social media, especially on TikTok and YouTube. Since the advent of Amazon-based indie publishing, there has been no shortage of hustlers and scam artists who are eager to tell the unwary how they can “strike it rich!” with low-content books, and even plagiarized books. Should we be surprised that these same video charlatans have now picked up the baton of AI written books?
The title of this post is a misnomer, of course. The coming AI fiction glut is not “coming”, it is already here.
We might have foreseen this. Long before AI, overnight fortunes were made by peddling get-rich-quick schemes and “lose weight without diet or exercise” promises.
Never mind that such ruses predictably disappoint in the long run. The lure of the quick and the easy has an enduring appeal.
WishTender was trending on Twitter this morning. It’s a new app that allows online “content creators” to ask “fans” for gifts.
But not just any content creators and not just any fans. You probably won’t find your favorite indie rock band using the site. And if you’re a writer thinking about WishTender…stick with Patreon instead.
Certain hashtags were predominant in the WishTender Twitter thread: #paypig, #findom, #footfetish, etc. If some of those terms are unfamiliar to you, I’ll let you do the Googling. But you probably get the general idea.
During the COVID lockdowns, there were numerous stories about enterprising women making millions by autoporning on OnlyFans. Sex—or the mere hint of it—sells, in case you haven’t heard. One young lady, an adult content creator who posts under the nom de guerre of Amouranth, claimed to have made $2 million in a single month.
A former pretzel store worker told the New York Postthat she makes $99K per month posting risqué photos online. She quit her job after making $20,000 during her first month on OnlyFans.
On one hand, I’m skeptical of such claims; but we can assume that the OnlyFans millionaires who make the news are the outliers. No one asserts that all OnlyFans content creators make this kind of money. I’m sure it takes persistence, and more than a little luck.
And then there’s the target audience to consider. Many men are easily led around by their…noses…when placed in the presence of a woman they find attractive. Even a virtual presence. And it’s sooo easy to spend money online. I can’t visit Amazon without finding at least two or three things that I absolutely need.
WishTender takes the digital sex panhandling economy to yet another level. Here one can make a naked (pun fully intended) exhortation for anonymous Internet saps to send them stuff. “Get your Prada/groceries/coffee funded by your fans” the site promises its users.
This is all perfectly legal, and it should be. If there are people (almost exclusively men, one can assume) who are that eager to be “paypigs” and “findoms” to strangers, more power to the content creators who are raking in the cash…and designer shoes.
But I can’t help wondering: at what point does this particular sector of the online economy reach its saturation point, especially when you consider the likelihood that the broader economy will slow down in 2023?
But then…silly me. I’m forgetting the gullibility that arises when you combine (some) men with photos of attractive women they’ll never meet, and the ease of spending money online. There are no doubt men out there who will prioritize the purchase of digital porn over food.
No matter where we stand on political matters, I think we can all admit that Elon Musk leaves something to be desired as a corporate manager. I think we can also all agree that the future of Twitter is uncertain, at best.
But what are the true canaries in the mineshaft that we should be looking for, where Twitter is concerned? Rolling Stone and other publications have made much, in recent days, about the celebrity exodus from Twitter: Whoopi Goldberg, Toni Braxton, Shonda Rhimes, Brian Koppelman, Sara Bareilles, and others.
I haven’t yet taken the plunge into Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. This isn’t because of any principle-driven objection on my part. I actually like the idea of serial fiction.
What I don’t like are the genres that presently dominate serial fiction on sites like Wattpad: YA romance, teen werewolf fantasies, and (of course) endless stories about teenagers with super-powers.
Nothing wrong with any of these categories, mind you. But I’m a 53-year-old adult. I don’t play in those fields, and have no interest in starting now.
Vincent V. Triola is another 50-something writer. Having perused his online footprint, I suspect that his politics are a bit to the left of mine. (That’s okay, most writers have politics to the left of mine.) But we’re both old enough to remember the pre-Amazon, pre-Internet literary world. I suspect that Mr. Triola, like me, spent some time in mall bookstores in the era of Ronald Reagan and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Mr. Triola is pessimistic on Vella, having dipped his toe into it. Writing on Medium, he describes Vella as “a writer-driven marketplace”. What this basically means (for those unfamiliar with Wattpad) is that most of the readers in a given literary marketplace are fellow (and competing) writers.
This is perfectly acceptable on Wattpad, which is youth-centric and mostly free. Wattpad also appeals to the generation that loves social media, and lots of step-by-step peer group engagement. My teenage years ended long before Instagram and TikTok, but I can easily imagine hormone-soaked, teenage brains lighting up with every social media “like”. We are all pack animals below the age of twenty-one or so.
But this community-based, social media-esque approach isn’t as appropriate for a paid platform like Amazon, where most readers aren’t hawking their own books and stories, too. There is nothing wrong with readers who are also writers, of course. But when that becomes the entire basis for a marketplace, the marketplace tends to become incestuous and spammy. (I’ve definitely seen this on YouTube, with all the “sub for sub” comment spam.)
As evidence for his claim, Triola notes that Vella has been almost exclusively marketed to authors thus far. This is a fair observation. I interact with Amazon as both a reader and a writer. I’ve received all Amazon’s communications about Vella so far via my writing communication channel.
Finally, Triola mentions that Amazon emphasizes the youth-centric genres that comprise most of Wattpad. There is only one tag for nonfiction. But “nonfiction” includes everything from historical biographies to automotive repair, to horticulture.
On the other side of this coin, some of the writers in several Facebook groups where I lurk are quite bullish on Vella. Almost all of them, however, write in the YA fantasy and/or romance fields. Back to some of Mr. Triola’s points.
Also, Amazon does now have a large banner ad for Vella on the front page of the Kindle store. So if Amazon isn’t exactly pushing Vella at readers, it isn’t exactly hiding it, either.
What is Amazon’s longterm strategy with Vella? Vella is obviously intended to be a Wattpad-killer, and Wattpad, as noted above, is all about YA fantasy and romance.
My guess is that Amazon realizes that YA fantasy/romance readers and writers tend to be “different” from readers and writers in other genres.
For one thing, the boundaries between readers and writers tend to be a lot more fluid in these genres. Note the prevalence of YA fan fiction. No one writes fan fiction based on the novels of John Grisham, Michael Connelly, or Clive Cussler. But there are online oceans of fan fiction for Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games—all of which are focused on a predominantly youthful market. The Wattpad format is appealing to writers of fan fiction because of the low barriers to entry.
Also, this group, being younger, usually has less disposable income. As noted above, Wattpad is a mostly free platform. Amazon is probably uncertain about the long-term monetization prospects for Vella, beyond the writers who are presently participating. (As an adult reader, I have very little interest in paying for serial fiction installments, for whatever that’s worth.)
We shall see. No one knows how Vella is going to turn out, or if it will even exist a year from now. After all, Amazon has in the past killed initiatives that proved unprofitable or unmanageable, like Kindle Worlds.
For now, I’m going to continue my wait-and-see approach with Kindle Vella.
Several months ago, Amazon rolled out its new Kindle Vella program to writers. Amazon has just announced that readers will have access to Kindle Vella by the end of July.
What is Kindle Vella, exactly? It’s a serial fiction app, somewhat analogous to Royal Road, Tapas, Radish, and Wattpad.
Will Vella prove the death knell of these other services? Who knows? But the fates of Barnes & Noble and Borders suggest that this might not be a good time to be purchasing shares of Wattpad, if it were publicly traded.
Will I publish on Kindle Vella? Probably. Eventually. But not right away. I like the idea of serial fiction, but I am most concerned with giving readers what they want. I’m not sure that most of my readers really want micropayment-based serial novels.
Initially, at least, success on Kindle Vella will probably go to certain kinds of genres, for certain kinds of readers. Which kinds? Well, probably the ones that are already successful on sites like Royal Road and Wattpad. This means: YA romance, YA fantasy, and YA science fiction, often with Japanese, Chinese, and Korean anime tropes.
These kinds of fiction are perfectly fine, but none of these categories is really my bailiwick. I’m 52 years old, and I usually write with the adult reader in mind. I have some idea of what a certain kind of Baby Boomer, Generation X, or older Millennial reader might want. A Gen Z reader…not so much. So I’ll probably proceed slowly where Kindle Vella is concerned.
Whatever Amazon does, Amazon usually does well. I see only one problem here, and that involves revenue. While there are paid stories on the various web serial sites that already exist, much of that content is presently provided for free.
Web serial readers not only skew younger, many of them are also outside the United States. Only about 25% of Wattpad’s traffic is U.S.-based.
Nothing against non-U.S. readers (or younger readers, for that matter). But it’s worth asking: will a medium that is mostly patronized by younger, non-U.S. readers elsewhere find traction with the over 35, U.S.-based readers that are currently Amazon’s bread-and-butter?
I don’t know, but I’m sure someone inside Amazon has considered those questions.
Vella could could turn out to be as ground-breaking as the Kindle was, changing the way millions of people read. Or…maybe not so much. I wouldn’t want to bet money on this one either way.
I’ve closed both my author and personal accounts on Goodreads. My books will still be listed there, of course; but I’ll no longer maintain an active presence there.
Since its launch in 2006, Goodreads has inspired both enthusiastic fans and detractors. There are controversies about the outdated design of the site, and whether or not Goodreads has declined since it was acquired by Amazon in 2013. I’ll leave those debates to others.
Since I first dabbled with Goodreads almost a decade ago, I have found it to be neither a uniformly good nor bad experience. Goodreads is social media. And all social media is a mixture of good and bad, best encapsulated in the acronym, YMMV.
Most of the people I interacted with on Goodreads were pleasant. I also ran across a few yahoos, of course. Once again: social media.
But it’s important to remember that Goodreads is for readers, not writers. I don’t want to be the author on Goodreads who is shouting “buy my book!” Nor is anyone served by the writer who hovers over reader-reviewers.
Nor does a Goodreads account really serve me as a reader-reviewer at this point, because I mostly don’t do that anymore. Once I started seriously publishing my own fiction, I became hesitant to review other people’s books on Amazon, etc. That’s a bit like Ford Motor Company reviewing the latest Toyota Camry, right? If I really want to say something about another author’s book (and that isn’t often), I generally say it here, on my own website.
Finally, throughout this past year I’ve been reassessing my relationship with social media. Since the whole social media thing began about fifteen years ago, I’ve been on Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and the now defunct Google+. At least I never had a MySpace page.
I’ve really gained very little from social media, either spiritually or monetarily. (YouTube, though, is useful if you want to know how to fix a leaky toilet.)
And so it goes with Goodreads. I don’t exactly hate Goodreads, but nor do I particularly like it or need it. This is not a personal boycott or a blanket condemnation of Goodreads. If the site works for you, then by all means continue to use it. But it no longer works for me.
“WriterTube” refers to the YouTube community of writers. Basically, it is an ongoing discussion about writing and (mostly self-) publishing with YouTube as the platform.
The vast majority of the WriterTube vloggers and commenters are teen girls and young women who are interested in the romance and young adult fantasy genres. I’m a 52-year-old man who writes and reads suspense, horror, and thrillers. WriterTube therefore isn’t a big draw for me, on either side of the camera.
Nevertheless, there are exceptions. From time to time, I have tuned in to the videos of Jenna Moreci. She was recently interviewed by Craig Martelle, whom I follow.
Most indie writers nowadays spend all of their time writing new fiction, and relatively little time building an online platform. Many indie writers have no fixed online presence beyond their Amazon sales page. As a result, they must spend disproportionately on various ads, mailing lists, and the like. Continue reading “Jenna Moreci and WriterTube”