I typed hopefully and watched the words come up on screen. “The light turned green and the cars streamed frictionlessly through the intersection.”
It was that time of the week again—time to write my weekly blog post about our increasingly frictionless world—and I was struggling to find something to write about. So far I’d been unable to find an appropriate topic of friction, and in its absence I began to sense the presence of some other, unknown friction, that was resisting my efforts.
But I knew that the first sentence, once committed to the page, could help set the course. Then again, it could be a dead end.
I rubbed my forehead, sighed, and held the delete key down until the document on screen was blank again. A bird perched on a ledge outside. I pondered it through my office window, then began typing again.
“A bird in flight is a study in the effects of air friction.”
Air friction? Was that right? Or was it lift? What’s the difference? Perhaps I should consult Wikipedia? My index finger hammered away at the delete key like an angry woodpecker.
Each week I’m reminded of the difficulty of writing, in particular writing about friction. The idea of friction, applied to daily life, is a metaphor, and like all metaphors, it can illuminate or obscure the subject under consideration There are frictions—difficulties, conflicts, and inefficiencies—in everything we do, but finding new examples, and new ways of thinking about them can be difficult. In the end it always comes out fine, but the process can be trying.
Wherein lies the inherent irony of writing about the frictionless. Shouldn’t one do it in a way that is itself frictionless?
Of course, I use a computer whenever I write, not merely to record, edit and format the words, sentences and paragraphs I’m typing, but also to research, spell check and provide suggestions. Trusted tools like Google, Thesaurus.com and Microsoft Word have streamlined much of the process of writing. But they can’t actually write a story.
Could a computer write, say, a blog post?
I decided to ask one. “Can computers write stories?” I typed skeptically into the search field.
1.14 seconds later I had, according to Google, “about 5,750,000 million” answers, which was about 5,749,999 more than I had time to read. One of the search engine’s responses to my query was another question. “Is the future award-winning novelist a writing robot?” asked an article about a story co-written by a computer program that had done well in a literary competition in Japan. Based on the sample sentence quoted in the article it sounded like the program could use more programming. And besides, the human co-writer did 80% of the work, according to the post. It didn’t seem like a very good robot, not to mention writer.
Another article revealed that some news sites like The Associated Press are using software to automatically create corporate earnings reports, sports recaps and other straightforward news stories. The stories are based on large data sets and preprogrammed templates and tended toward dry recitations of facts, like “Sales increased in quarter two”. Given its limitations (and high price tag), it seemed unlikely to be of help on my blog posts anytime in the near future.
Two search results down, 5,749,998 to go. As I expected, it was starting to seem unlikely there would be a technology solution to my problem.
“A machine will win a Pulitzer one day,” was the bold prediction in another article. It seemed like a big claim but I learned, one that could hinge less on the creativity of computers than on their ability to connect massive numbers of people with information specific to each individual. A news story that was written for millions of readers, but that was customized for each reader so that it told the reader how the news being reported would directly affect his or her family would be a new kind of news writing, and one that couldn’t be done by a human writer, at least not at a large scale. It was an interesting idea, but probably a long ways off.
And then there was the online tool from Hubspot, which let you input three words related to your area of interest, and returned possible titles for a blog post. I entered “friction”, “automation” and “technology” and clicked on the button. After a few seconds I got back five results. The top one was, “Why we love friction (and you should, too)!” which clearly was no solution. But at least the process was quick, streamlined, and interesting.
Which reminded me that the solution to my blog-writing predicament, as always, was unlikely to be a new program or robot, but rather the story of looking for one.
My gaze returned to the window. The bird was gone, and the sky had darkened. The document on screen was still blank, but I knew what I’d be writing about this week.