Two centuries ago, on a dare to tell the best scary story, 19-year-old Mary Shelley imagined an idea that became the basis for Frankenstein. Mary’s original concept became the novel that arguably kick-started the genres of science fiction and Gothic horror, but also provided an enduring myth that shapes how we grapple with creativity, science, technology, and their consequences.
Two hundred years later, inspired by that classic dare, we’re challenging you to create new myths for the 21st century along with our partners National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Chabot Space and Science Center, and Creative Nonfiction magazine.
Don’t miss the announcement video, featuring yours truly in a role I’m sure to regret:
The recent scandal with Facebook’s Trending Topics news module goes deeper than the revelation that it was humans all along hiding behind the algorithm. It should come as no surprise that Facebook has bias — every organization does. It’s what you do about the bias, how you attempt to disclose it and manage it, that makes a difference. News organizations have been grappling with that question for a long time, creating formal and informal codes of conduct, oversight systems and transparency rules. Facebook Trending story: The Wizard of Oz algorithm
CNN, May 14, 2016
In reality algorithms have to run on actual servers, using code that sometimes breaks, crunching data that’s frequently unreliable. There is an implementation gap between what we imagine algorithms do in a perfect computational universe and all the compromises, assumptions, and workarounds that need to happen before the code actually works at scale. Computation has done all sorts of incredible things, sometimes appearing both easy and infallible. But it takes hundreds or thousands of servers working in tandem to do something as straightforward as answer a search engine query, and that is where the problems of implementation come in.
We spend an awful lot of time now thinking about what algorithms know about us: the ads we see online, the deep archive of our search history, the automated photo-tagging of our families. We don’t spend as much time asking what algorithms want. In some ways, it’s a ridiculous question, at least for now: Humans create computational systems to complete certain tasks or solve particular problems, so any kind of intention or agency would have to be built in, right?
Our digital breadcrumbs now tell stories about us that are deeply secret, moving, surprising—and often things we don’t even know about ourselves. These days when a computer crunches the numbers and tells you “this is who you are,” it’s hard to contradict because there’s more data about you in the machine than there is in your head. Algorithms are most effective at curating the information that’s hardest for us to hold in our heads: how long we talk to mom or what day of the week we splurge on an extra cookie.
Last week saw the arrival of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, a wonderful collection of essays by Wallace critics, friends and colleagues. My piece in the collection, “Becoming Yourself: David Foster Wallace and the Afterlife of Reception,” considered Wallace’s legacy through his communities of readership on Amazon and I feel very lucky to be in such august company. For example, my essay is nestled between Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen!
Here’s the full list of contributors:
Samuel Cohen (co-editor) Don DeLillo Dave Eggers Ed Finn Kathleen Fitzpatrick Jonathan Franzen Paul Giles Heather Houser Lee Konstantinou (co-editor) David Lipsky Rick Moody Ira B. Nadel Michael Pietsch Josh Roiland George Saunders Molly Schwartzburg
It’s been a busy month around here. I spent a fantastic week visiting the New America Foundation in DC and getting to know the people behind ASU’s Future Tense partnership with NAF and Slate Magazine. There has been a lot of action back at the office too, and I’ll be posting shortly about my upcoming trip to Emory. But for now I wanted to mention that I wrote up a short post for Open Culture last week to promote another ASU project, the very cool 10,000 Solutions. Check it out and share your bright idea!
I’m very excited to announce that a version of my essay on David Foster Wallace has just been published online as the Stanford Literary Lab’s third pamphlet. Here’s the lead-in:
If there is one thing to be learned from David Foster Wallace, it is that cultural transmission is a tricky game. This was a problem Wallace confronted as a literary professional, a university-based writer during what Mark McGurl has called the Program Era. But it was also a philosophical issue he grappled with on a deep level as he struggled to combat his own loneliness through writing. To really study this question we need to look beyond the symbolic markets of prestige to the real market, the site of mass literary consumption, where authors succeed or fail based on their ability to speak to that most diverse and complicated of readerships: the general public. Unless we study what I call the social lives of books, we make the mistake of keeping literature in the same ascetic laboratory that Wallace tried to break out of with his intense authorial focus on popular culture, mass media, and everyday life.
It’s been a summer of major changes in my life: completing grad school and moving on to my first job as a fellow at Arizona State University. As I adjust to a new position where I am “doing” almost as much as I am “thinking” (for a very word-based, university definition of doing), the impossible has occurred. I’ve begun to miss the abundant time I used to spend just sitting at the keyboard, writing. And think about writing. And fiddling.
I still do a fair amount of sitting and fiddling in the new job, of course, but my full agenda there does not include any special time for research. There is no gilt-edged appointment in my office Outlook calendar. I need to make that time myself, and I’ve begun to wish I was a faster writer. I mean, I’m fast enough at drafting proposals, emails and memos, but I don’t have the prodigious speed that some academics seem to have for polishing off whole essays in an evening. I can barely read whole essays in an evening.
So my ambitions for this year are to practice the arts of making time and of thinking through problems on the go. It’s dawned on me that my new slate of responsibilities is not a temporary condition, and that the period of graduate navel-gazing is done forever.
The positive side of this new reality is that I am actually starting to enjoy working on my own stuff once again. It’s still a challenge of will to revise dissertation work for publication, but I am really starting to look forward to some new projects and fresh directions. Who knows, maybe I’ll even put more time into this blog?
I just sent off the last new chapter that I’ll be writing for this dissertation to my committee. What remains is an introduction and a lot of revision, but it’s very exciting to be approaching the end of a long, lonely road.
The chapter looks at two younger writers, David Foster Wallace and Junot Díaz, and argues that they both have carved out special positions for themselves through style. Each engages with the idea of the “nerd,” which is a figure I’ve had trouble finding a lot of secondary literature on. There’s some overlap with fans and media studies work on online communities, but the nerd is different, and it’s a word Díaz in particular has used to describe himself and his work. What’s interesting is that the two writers started with the same basic objection to the problems of what Wallace calls “Standard Written English” and came up with radically different solutions. Wallace pushed the envelope with footnotes and postmodern stylistic games; Díaz broke new ground in integrating English, Spanish, and many other cultural and genre dialects, making what he calls the bedrock fact of “unintelligibility” a central part of his fiction.