Calvino’s creative writing machine

In contrast to Kenneth Goldsmith, champion of machine-aided uncreative writing, Italo Calvino entertains the idea that machines could learn to write creatively:

I am thinking of a writing machine that would bring to the page all those things that we are accustomed to consider as the most jealously guarded attributes of our psychological life, of our daily experience, our unpredictable changes of mood and inner elations, despairs and moments of illumination. What are these if not so many linguistic “fields,” for which we might well succeed in establishing the vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and properties of permutation?

But one consequence is common in Goldsmith’s and Calvino’s visions: the death of the traditional author. Calvino again:

Literature as I knew it was a constant series of attempts to make one word stay put after another by following certain definite rules; or, more often, rules that were neither definite nor definable, but that might be extracted from a series of examples, or rules made up for the occasion—that is to say, derived from the rules followed by other writers. […] A writing machine that has been fed an instruction appropriate to the case could also devise an exact and unmistakable “personality” of an author, or else it could be adjusted in such a way as to evolve or change “personality” with each work it composes. Writers, as they have always been up to now, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well.

Calvino is content with his thought experiment: he says that “it would not be worth the trouble of constructing such a complicated machine” as he describes. But one wonders whether artificial intelligence might progress to such a place. We are already trying to write under the influence of data. People decry that as forcing the writer into a well-traveled rut, but add a little AI and writing might become more adventurous:

…given that developments in cybernetics lean toward machines capable of learning, of changing their own programs, of developing their own sensibilities and their own needs, nothing prevents us from foreseeing a literature machine that at a certain point feels unsatisfied with its own traditionalism and starts to propose new ways of writing, turning its own codes completely upside down.

Calvino perhaps understates the difficultly in getting machines to ‘develop their own sensibilities’ (he was writing in 1967) but still—imagine what might be added to Goldsmith’s vision of fashioning new art from existing literary material if that material began to have even a rudimentary mind of its own, if it danced with us a little bit, like sculpting with living clay.

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