Exploring technology’s impact on the status and idea of authorship in today’s world, The Near-Death of the Author reveals the many obstacles facing contemporary authors. In this blog post, author John Potts shares some insight on his book, delving deeper into topics of authorship and AI.
1) Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?
I have always been interested in the idea of the author, including the history of authorship and how the status of authors has changed through history and across cultures. This topic was fleshed out over several years while I taught a Masters seminar series called “Studies in Authorship” at Macquarie University. The students were in Media, so I broadened the scope of the author to include filmmaker, songwriter, composer, visual artist, choreographer – any creative practitioner whose original works are protected by copyright; this broad definition of the author is maintained in the book. I learnt a lot from discussions with the students: some of the musicians were working with AI systems, while another was a graffiti artist, which got me thinking whether graffiti artists could claim copyright in their designs when their art practice is technically the crime of vandalism: this turned out to be one of the complications within contemporary authorship analysed in the book.
I have a chapter on the history of authorship in The Near-Death of the Author which puts the contemporary plight of the author into historical context: the central issue today is the impact of digital and internet technologies, while a much earlier technology – the printing press – was the technological factor driving the advent of copyright for authors in the eighteenth century. Before copyright, an author needed patronage – generally from the aristocracy – for a work to be published, and the status of an author such as a playwright, including Shakespeare, was shockingly low. There were no published versions of Shakespeare’s plays in his lifetime, apart from some grubby and inaccurate quarto versions, which were deemed not worthy of inclusion in the newly formed Bodleian Library. We know virtually nothing of Shakespeare’s life because nothing contemporary was written of him as an author. The elevated status of the author as a type of cultural hero wasn’t established until the Romantic period in the early nineteenth century, when poets or authors were celebrated as the “unacknowledged legislators of the World,” in Shelley’s phrase; the Romantics also developed the idea of the genius, reserved for the highest and most inspired, most heroic authors. The Romantic idea of the author persisted through Modernism and the twentieth century, with its celebration of genius artists and authors. But I argue in the book that the status of author has been devalued in the internet age: users don’t want to pay for an author’s work when it can be accessed for free, and now it’s proposed that an author doesn’t even need to be human, since AI is capable of creating works of art and writing in all forms.
2) What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
Rapid technological change! I thought I had covered the technological developments most directly affecting the contemporary author: the illegal downloading and streaming of copyright material, which deprives authors of royalties and the possibility of making a living as an author or artist. I covered remix culture and creative re-use of copyright material in contemporary internet culture, dubbing it a “post-authorship” zone in that authors’ rights are disregarded. I have a chapter on algorithm-driven electronic artworks that generate constantly changing text from a vast database: in these cases, the author of the work appears to be the algorithm. But then it was pointed out that I had neglected to discuss NFTs, which had emerged in the pandemic lockdown period as a new outlet and source of revenue for artists, in that the artist maintains copyright in the digital work. So I needed to include NFTs. I finished the book before the launch of ChatGPT, which has rocked the humanities in 2023. But I do have a chapter called “AI vs the Author” in which I refer to a newspaper opinion piece written for the Guardian in 2020 by GPT-3, which was the engine for ChatGPT, until the recent upgrade to GPT-4. So I managed to include a detailed consideration of the consequences for authorship of language model AI systems like ChatGPT.
3) What was your experience working with the editor/editors of this book?
Unfailingly excellent. I received strong support for the project from the editor, while the comments from one of the reviewers of the manuscript were helpful, including the recommendation that I include discussion of NFTs from the point of view of authorship: this was the last section added to the book.
4) Your book is certainly a timely one in a world where the arts and humanities are being increasingly impacted by AI (students writing essays using AI, people getting portraits made of themselves by AI…etc). What are you hoping will be the main takeaway from your book, especially with people who are worried about the current state of the humanities?
The idea that AI systems can perfectly emulate authors and artists in creating works in all forms and media – could in effect replace authors and artists – is the latest devaluation of the status of authors in the digital/internet age. Such is the wonder at AI’s ability to write any kind of text, by learning the rules of a genre or form through access to a gigantic database, that human authors seem to be reduced to the status of content provider to the database. That database – the internet – is composed of millions of texts and copyrighted works by human authors: but no author is being paid or even acknowledged for their contribution. The prospect that an AI system could create literary or artistic works the equal of any human author represents an existential crisis for the contemporary author. Indeed, some law reform advocates argue that a work created by AI should be protected by copyright, which would raise the AI to the same legal status as a human author.
Many readers will be familiar with the famous essay published in 1968 by Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author.” In that essay Barthes aimed to destroy the Romantic conception of the author: inspired creator of original works whose intention in making the work should always be the first point in interpretation of that work. Barthes asserted instead that the modern author should be considered as a scriptor – a contemporary version of the medieval scriptor or copyist: the modern scriptor has only the power to mix writings, drawing on an “immense dictionary” so that any new work is not original but a “tissue of quotations.” This shift in status of the author was necessary for Barthes because for him the real author of new works was language itself, or the culture. But ironically, Barthes was predicting the writing method of language model AI systems, which could be called digital scriptors. ChatGPT draws on an immense database, from which it learns the genre rules, and simply mixes or recombines data in a novel combination.
But this process of data recombination is not the same as the human act of creativity and composition. AI is very good at mimicking or simulating creative works – but that’s all it is. In addition, AI has zero emotional capacity, unlike a human storyteller, who draws on a lifetime of experience and observation of the emotional behaviour of fellow humans in creating works of literature, film, music, or art. For these reasons, I believe the contemporary author will survive this existential crisis! Humans will continue to demand, and enjoy, works created and composed by human authors.