Last week, an opinion piece appeared in the New York Times, arguing that the advent of algorithmically derived human-readable content may be destroying our humanity, as the lines between technology and humanity blur. A particular target in this article is the advent of “robo-journalism,” or the use of algorithms to write copy for the news. 1 The author cites a study that alleges that “90 percent of news could be algorithmically generated by the mid-2020s, much of it without human intervention.” The obvious rebuttal to this statement is that algorithms are written by real human beings, which means that there are human interventions in every piece of algorithmically derived text. But statements like these also imply an individualism that simply does not match the historical tradition of how newspapers are created. 2
In the nineteenth century, algorithms didn’t write texts, but neither did each newspaper’s staff write its own copy with personal attention to each article. Instead, newspapers borrowed texts from each other—no one would ever have expected individualized copy for news stories. 3 Newspapers were amalgams of texts from a variety of sources, cobbled together by editors who did more with scissors than with a pen (and they often described themselves this way).
- The article also decries other types of algorithmically derived texts, but the case for computer-generated creative fiction or poetry is fairly well argued by people such as Mark Sample, and is not an argument that I have anything new to add to. ↩
- This post is based on my research for the Viral Texts project at Northeastern University. ↩
- In 1844, the New York Daily Tribune published a humorous story illustrating exactly the opposite, in fact—some readers preferred a less human touch. ↩