The Bionic Writer

I’ve been enjoying NPR’s first season of Invisibilia, particularly the season finale which dealt with an issue near and dear to my heart, the ways in which computers change us as human beings.

The first half of the show was devoted to Thad Starner who’s been building wearable computers since 1993 and was part of the team that developed Google Glass, a technology which involves placing a screen in front of the eye that gives you information about what you’re looking at. My feelings on wearable technology are mixed at best. I tend to think the more we directly integrate computers into our humanity, the more we become like the Borg, a fact echoed by the efforts of Thad and a bunch of other enthusiasts to develop a collective consciousness and to refer to themselves as the Borg.

Seriously, I know they watched the episode but I think they had the wrong takeaway from The Best Of Both Worlds.

But the piece that was most interesting about Thad and the device he called “Lizzie” was a piece of software called the “remembrance agent”. Thad would be typing away at a mini-hand held keyboard everything he said and encountered in the world and the remembrance agent would give him a feed of information at the bottom of his field of view. It helped him to remember how he met people or what was currently going on in their lives, and could also be connected to the on-line world for all of the information and memories stored there.

This got me to thinking about the part of writing I find the most challenging and the most disruptive to the process, research.

The Sky Below is requiring a lot of specific research on certain pieces of architecture in Cleveland, as well as a lot of general knowledge architectural terms, cultural artifacts, baby names from 1974, etc. Some of this research is quite fun and has led me to discover the work of a lot of great photographers and 3D modelers, but it can also slow down the pace of actually writing a chapter, and makes my usual habit of writing without an internet connection untenable.

So what if I had a device that sat in front of my eye that was cued in to what I was writing on my computer and would provide me with context sensitive information? I could start typing a description of something like “the poles underneath a railing” and the computer would respond with “baluster”. Or it could suggest synonyms for words that I use frequently. Or it could keep a running draft of the book in it’s data banks and give me references to previous scenes and actions by characters as a way of maintaining continuity.

In other words, all of the things that I have to do in my head and by scrolling back and forth through the draft at writing time and revision could theoretically be done by a computer just out of my line of sight.

I personally think I’d find this extremely annoying. I already don’t like the auto-corrections Microsoft Word makes to phrases (particular the grammar check’s tendency to insist on an “and then” instead of just “then). It might work in my office where I have two screens with a little field off to the right that I could mostly ignore, but maybe something useful would catch my eye. But I imagine however it’s implemented, it could change my technique as a writer and allow to produce more accurate prose on the first go.

Sounds ideal, huh?

Well, maybe.

I do think that the creative mind needs breaks and needs time to reflect on scenes. If something is theoretically “perfect” on the first go, then it eliminates some of the creation that happens on the first, second or even third revisions. Some of my best lines don’t come out in the first draft (and some do). Also, as much as I have tried to train myself to be a writing machine, able to write blog posts and chapters in a fixed amount of time, I have often found the best work is the kind I’ve reflected on. Even if the typing is happening fast, I’ve been thinking about it for a while, composing paragraphs and arguments in my head so that when it flows onto the page it’s really just me reading back the first draft in my head.

The process of writing on a computer screen doesn’t feel very different from how I used to write on paper, just with a little better speed of thought to speed of typing ratio. Suggestive or remembrance software on the other hand would be nudging my writing in certain directions, and not always directions of my own choosing. True when I Google a term I’m still getting it’s search results, but I’m forming the query, or often multiple queries. I’m curating information as much as it is.

If someone creates this I might try it, but I have a feeling, as with many things, the thing you’ve grown up used to is the thing that’s going to feel the most comfortable and creative.

PS. If anyone makes any money off the software writing agent, I want 15%. 🙂

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1 Comment

Filed under Trube On Tech, Writing

One response to “The Bionic Writer

  1. John Scalzi might contend you just need a BrainPal.

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