Does anyone remember Herbert Goldstone’s short story “Virtuoso”? It was a futuristic tale written in the early 1950s about Rollo, a robot that learns to play Beethoven’s Appassionata on the piano so perfectly and so easily that it reduces his “Maestro” owner to tears. But when the Maestro makes plans to introduce this new mechanical virtuoso to the world, the robot refuses to play ever again. “Music is not for robots. It is for man,” he says to his owner. “To me it is easy, yes.…It was not meant to be easy.”
I first read this story in the 7th grade, more than three decades ago now, but every few years something reminds me of it, and its poignance still seems applicable no matter the era. (If only this were true in the real world, that our machines truly knew what was best for us, then maybe right now the Word document spellcheck program wouldn’t be warning me that “poignance” might not actually be a word.)
I thought of “Virtuoso” again in 1995, when I was a young editor at Salon.com, then one of the Internet’s first magazine startups, and I nervously called one of our Pulitzer-nominated critics to see how her story was coming along. When I asked her when I might see a first draft of her overdue essay on how TV sitcoms had replaced rock ’n’ roll bands in the pop culture pantheon, she balked. I gulped. I assumed I’d insulted her. Instead, I was shocked to discover a writer in the throes of self-doubt. “It’s terrible,” she whined. “It doesn’t make any sense at all. I haven’t captured the essence of what any of this really means….” And so on.
I convinced her to send it over anyway so I could have a look, and of course, like all of her pop culture criticism, it was brilliant.
At first, I was relieved. You mean even seasoned professionals suffer from that familiar dread and anxiety? Maybe I would be a writer yet.
And then I was horrified. You mean even seasoned professionals suffer from that familiar dread and anxiety? Maybe I didn’t want to be a writer after all.
But here I am, almost 20 years and at least a half-dozen editorial jobs later, and I’m still writing – or trying to, which at this point I’m willing to argue is the very same thing.
I thought of “Virtuoso” again in 2007, when I worked as a digital editor for NBC Nightly News and it was my job to espouse the efficiency of digital production tools that would make distributing NBC News “content” more “scalable.” Suddenly here I was in 30 Rock boardrooms with the likes of Tim Russert and Brian Williams, and it was my job to tell them that what they were doing – that shooting satellites into the sky and beaming signals back to earth so a crew could send images of earthquakes in Haiti – was inefficient. It was like telling an Olympic swimmer that the water he’d just sliced through on his way to a fourth gold medal didn’t have to be so cold.
More recently, I was reminded of this man-versus-the-machine-he-built theme while reading about Jaron Lanier, the “virtual reality” computer scientist whose ideas I’ve been happy to see gaining traction with the publication of Who Owns the Future?, his latest manifesto. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Lanier warns that the automated forces that have devalued creative pursuits such as writing and music will eventually destroy many more middle-class enterprises as well.
“All forms of automation ultimately rely on data that come from people, however. There is no magical ‘artificial intelligence,’” he asserts. “There are always real people behind the curtain. The rise of inequality isn’t because of people not being needed ‒ more precisely, it’s because of an illusion that they aren’t even there.”
When we have already reached an age in which writing can happen by algorithm, social media templates seduce us into feeling productive by demanding bursts of wit over complete sentences and entire newspaper photo departments can be summarily dismissed thanks to iPhones, it’s worth remembering the lesson of Herbert Goldstone’s noble robot, and not just for the sake of nostalgia.
This lesson has apparently seeped so deeply into my subconscious that when I teach others about reporting and writing, it is a default part of my platform. I spoke to a group of student interns at the Jackson Free Press, an alternative weekly – the only one of its kind in the entire state of Mississippi – and the editor, Donna Ladd, was kind enough to pass on some their impressions.
One student wrote:
“What’d I take? Don’t think that you shouldn’t do it because it doesn’t come easy, she said. Say what?! Writing can be a challenging and tedious process that breeds self-doubt and frustration for a newbie and maybe even some oldies. However, we all keep coming back to it. It takes work, but we love it. So to the little voice in my head that says, ‘Christianna, what do you think you’re doing? You can’t do this.’ I’ll say, ‘Watch me!’”
Computers don’t struggle with self-doubt (which can, admittedly, make the process of writing very inefficient). But they also lack the conviction of having to overcome it.
So, writers, make your struggle known. Complain loudly. Whine about the pain of a blank white page. Follow Lanier’s advice and create something that isn’t scalable, that’s more than filling in words into a template, that doesn’t follow a formula. Just, whatever you do, please: Don’t make it look easy. It wasn’t meant to be easy.
Cynthia Joyce has contributed to The Washington Post, Newsday, NPR.org, Entertainment Weekly, MSNBC.com and Nola.com. She is a founding editor of Salon.com and teaches new media at the Meek School of Journalism at Ole Miss.