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Being an author in the age of A.I.
What does that distinction mean in 2023?
This week I’ll be speaking at the Annapolis Book Festival in Annapolis, Maryland.
My presentation will be at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 29th, where I’ll be talking about my book, History, Disrupted: How Social Media & the World Wide Web Have Changed the Past. Journalist Drew Magary (GQ, Deadspin, SFGate) will moderate.
If you’re in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia-Delaware region, please join us! The festival has authors speaking all day, including many who are quite illustrious.
As I prepare for another festival as an “author,” I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an “author” in our current communications environment—particularly in light of ChatGPT and Large Language Models (LLMs). So, for this week’s newsletter, allow me to share some not-so-well-formed thoughts on the subject.
Firstly, it continues to amaze me that I’m considered an “author.” Many of the authors I’ll share the stage with this weekend have written multiple books. When I worked at the Library of Congress, we had scholars in residence who had written more than 20 books. I’ve written one. I must admit that I do get a bit of imposter syndrome when in the company of such luminaries. Am I truly an “author”? Maybe I’m a “writer” on his way to becoming an “author”? What’s the difference between the two? In my professional career, I’ve also been a public historian, a curator, an archivist, a program manager, a founding director, a senior fellow… So maybe I’m a public intellectual, more than a “writer” or an “author”? Who decides?
The question of who decides is an underlying theme throughout my book. In the discipline of history, for example, traditionally it has been a linear path of credentialism that determines who is qualified to hold the title of “historian.” Complete the requisite steps—high school degree, college degree, graduate degree, terminal degree—and those in the profession will accept you as one of their own.
But just as the Web has upended linear reading so, too, has it upended linear credentialism. Today, thousands of people around the world who did not follow a linear path identify as “historians”— including journalists, activists, public officials, TV hosts, filmmakers, Wikipedia editors, blockchain enthusiasts, tech entrepreneurs, teenagers and disinformation agents. Authority today can be acquired in very non-linear ways. The current communications environment challenges whether the linear credentialists can maintain their gatekeeping functions.
The same can be said of authors. The word “author” implies having some “authority” on a subject. That authority was perhaps, in a prior era, conferred by institutions such as a university (i.e., Harvard), a major publishing house (i.e., Random House) a mainstream media outlet (i.e., The New York Times) or by other authors.
The Web has challenged these gatekeepers. One of the social Web’s central tenets has been shortcuts to authority. Utilize the social Web in certain ways, and you can fast-forward a claim to authority that in prior eras may have taken years or a lifetime to attain.
For example, in my book I cite a consultant who formerly worked for Hallmark greeting cards that, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, used the Web to position herself as an “authority” on the history of race relations in America, leveraging available e-history content to familiarize herself with the subject and then booking lucrative speaking gigs to talk about it. Scholars would not recognize her as an authority; she did not follow the linear path of credentialism academia prescribes. In prior eras, perhaps The New York Times or Random House might not have either, although that is changing. But certainly on the Web, authority and expertise can be engineered in ways that circumvent traditional gatekeepers and expedite the process of establishing authority. She currently identifies herself on her website as an “award-winning author.”
She was far from alone. During the Covid-19 pandemic, individuals copied information about Covid-19 from Wikipedia and government websites, and self-published books on Amazon to position themselves as authorities on the virus. Today, people are using ChatGPT to generate e-books and online courses in a fraction of the time it would take a professor, scraping information from the Web into hastily-assembled end-products, self-publishing via Amazon and identifying as “authors.” Some websites even allow you to customize and order fictitious trophies and plaques that you can use to add “award-winning” to your byline.
I argue in my book that this is an extension of one of the social Web’s core values, namely to be “instantly-gratifying.” One of the Web’s primary goals is to find the shortest distance between two (or more) points, to deliver instantaneous results in the shortest amount of time. This is the premise behind Google search (find what you need faster); GPS (get to your destination faster); and even ChatGPT (generate text and ideas faster). As opposed to the time-consuming work normally required of authoring a book or conducting scholarship, the Web promises that the time and effort to do both can be compressed in order to get a product to market faster. It is the destination that matters not the journey, according to the logic of the social Web.
Being able to call oneself an author, then, and to have visible proof online, becomes more important than how one arrived at that title. Rarely am I asked how I wrote History, Disrupted; what matters is that I wrote it. Being an “author” allows you to claim authority and sell your services to potential buyers at a premium (keynote lectures, media appearances, online courses, etc.) It is one of the ways we differentiate ourselves as a product in a fast-moving and competitive digital marketplace.
To be sure, authors of prior eras took shortcuts—and those shortcuts still exist.
Scholars who write 20+ books almost always have research assistants who research and write sections of the books on their behalf. Ghostwriting has been a lucrative field for decades, and many celebrities and elected officials who “author” books actually pay someone else to write them. Michelle Obama’s Becoming, for example, was written by a team of people. Is hiring a ghostwriter any more or less ethical than using ChatGPT? Should the average citizen be chastised for not writing his own book, while political figures and public intellectuals are given a pass? One could argue that the Web and A.I. have helped to level the playing field, allowing those without the means to hire ghostwriters or research assistants to benefit as the elites do.
For my part, I did not have a ghostwriter or research assistant for History, Disrupted; I researched and wrote all of it myself. I did hire an editor, named Andy, who was extraordinary and without whom the book would never have been a success. And I had an editor at Palgrave Macmillan, Molly, who offered thoughtful commentary. The book was peer-reviewed twice, each time by four scholars, and friends of mine read individual chapters and offered feedback. It truly does take a village to write a book. Or at least, it used to. Soon, all it will probably take is a chatbot and a WiFi connection. This is one of the reasons that ChatGPT has felt like such an existential threat to authors, copywriters, journalists and academics—with news coverage and opinion pieces to match. It challenges their hard-earned authority and destabilizes a set of gatekeepers, not to mention threatening the jobs of millions of people.
What distinguishes an “author” when everyone can publish a book so effortlessly? Will that distinction still matter? Can institutions such as universities, publishing houses and media outlets maintain their gatekeeping functions—let alone their profitability and viability? Will the distinctions between those who use tools such as ChatGPT and those who don’t matter less and less? Would anyone know if a book is authored with the assistance of a Large Language Model? Will that be equivalent to hiring a ghostwriter or a research assistant, or more akin to plagiarism? Let me know what you think in the comments. At this juncture, I have more questions than answers.
Lastly, since the publication of History, Disrupted, I’ve been asked for advice by many aspiring authors.
Here, then, are three rudimentary thoughts gleaned from my experience, offered with humility, well-aware that many others—including those speaking at the festival this weekend—are better positioned to offer their wisdom.
My advice for aspiring authors would be threefold:
Writing a book is easy. Writing a good book is hard. As mentioned, today one can scrape the Web for information, use ChatGPT or Quillbot to formulate it, self-publish it on Amazon and, voila!, you are an author. For some people this can be a wonderful option, as we all have a story to tell. But regardless of how you reach the destination, I would urge all aspiring authors to put the time and effort into the journey. Writing a good book on any subject requires relentless editing; time for thought, contemplation and reflection; and outside readers who can offer honest feedback. If you wish to write a book, you can probably do that rather quickly. If you want to write a good book, invest the requisite time and energy. It’s worth doing so, in my opinion.
Write the book you want to write. During the process of pitching History, Disrupted I had agents, editors and book coaches tell me to write a different book than the one I had envisioned. One person told me to write my book about Donald Trump because those books were selling. But, the book I wanted to write was about how historical information circulates on the Web and social media, and I couldn’t justify working so hard on a project that I didn’t believe in. Part of the book’s success, I believe, has been the fact that I genuinely care about the questions it raises—and, it turns out, other people do, too.
The best reason to write a book is to become a better writer. There are lots of reasons to write a book: to make money, to become famous, to establish authority, to share something with the world, or to answer a question (or series of questions). All are valid—though I’ve learned that most books do not make money, most people who write books don’t become famous, and 96% of all books never sell more than 1,000 copies. Given that it’s unlikely that writing a book will lead to money, fame or wide readership, I think the biggest reward of writing a book is to become a better writer. I learned so much about writing (and editing) from History, Disrupted. The process made me a better thinker, a clearer writer, a crisper editor, and a sharper analyst. Each time I thought I had the answers, the book challenged me to dig deeper. Open A.I. tools are truly incredible, and certainly people can benefit greatly from them. But becoming a better writer is not about finding the shortest distance between two points. Sometimes to get to the best destination, you have to take the longest journey.
I love to write. I’ve always written, and probably will continue to do so as long as I can. This Substack is a chance for me to try and improve my writing each week. It can sometimes be stressful, and often times leads to late nights (I’m writing now at 12:01 a.m. ET). I could use ChatGPT to make the task easier and the distance shorter. But, I don’t plan to. For me, the long day’s journey into night is worth it.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a scene called “The Writer” in a play called The Good Doctor, written by Neil Simon and based on the short stories of Anton Chekhov:
“I look out the window and think that life is passing me at a furious rate. So I ask myself the question, What force is it that compels me to write so incessantly, day after day, page after page, story after story? And the answer is quite simple: I have no choice. I am a writer.”
See you in Annapolis,
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