This week for Jacket2, I shared a few thoughts on the “human” in computer-generated text. The post was inspired by Shelley Podolny’s New York Times essay on the difficulties of distinguishing between human- and computer-generated texts and Akala’s hip hop and Shakespeare TED talk, which my graduate student Megan Grandmont mentioned in an assignment. After taking the quiz that accompanied Podolny’s article and mistaking app-generated verse for a Shakespearean sonnet, I remembered Akala’s talk and the trouble his audience had distinguishing between Shakespeare and hip hop. This connection led me down a rabbit hole to the ways British literature has constructed the category of “human,” notably in relation to empire:
But if the easy codes for “human” text are literary, we must ask which aesthetics, styles, and genres can “pass” as human. We would do well to remember Thomas Macauley’s insistence on the relationship between English literature, taste, and intellect in colonial India, one of many instances in the history of the British Empire when humanity and the literary were pegged to one another – and to Englishness. Hallmarks of this history in the digital sphere may be one of the afterlives of colonialism. They linger in the assumptions that subtend the production and consumption of text online in the Anglophone Global North, from the shape of datasets developed to reader interpretation. While Podolny’s piece speaks to the anxieties provoked by big data, algorithms that may be smarter than we are, or neoliberalism encroaching on journalism, we must attend to its unspoken question: what forms of “human” are authorized by the algorithm?
Read more at http://jacket2.org/commentary/human-text.