On this, the first ‘official’ morning of 2023 (meaning, a work morning), I read an article, as one does, at Bookseller: “AI narration is inevitable.”
Written by Mark Piesing, it argues that AI narration is already very good and will only improve, that it’s cheap-as-free, that human narration is not necessarily better, and so on and so forth. (It also begins with a paragraph suggesting the writer is stung because people praise the audiobook narration done for his own work, but do not instead praise the writing he did for said book, which is an awfully strange way to begin the opinion piece, as it strongly suggests a bulging mouthful of sour grapes as motivation. “These narrators are getting my credit!”)
Mmm yeah, no. Fuck all of that. Let’s talk about this a little bit.
(Excuse that it’s a bit of a ramble. Don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back.)
First, the implementation of any technology is not automagically inevitable. We need to stop treating it like just because a thing exists it is now as certain as the fucking sunrise. It was once “inevitable” that e-books were going to completely eradicate print books. Did that happen? It did not. Sometimes it goes the other way — it has been supposedly inevitable that high speed rail would take over the country and the world, and it has not. (Certainly not here in the US, anyway.)
You can, with enough confidence, assert that anything is inevitable, no matter how weird or how horrible. “Eventually, we’ll all have domesticated chimpanzees thanks to genetic engineering!” “It is futile to resist turning homeless people into cobblestone — we have the technology to make human bricks, and this solves the homeless problem and will be a green initiative!” “Its obvious that we have already destroyed the Earth and so we should just get used to living in one of Elon Musk’s Martian Exo-Colonies, even if the Prefabricated Smart Habitation Modules sometimes uproot themselves and roll themselves off into deep canyons, screaming racial epithets as they crush everyone inside!”
Just because artificial intelligence exists and works does not mean it is universally:
a) good b) necessary c) desirable.
Is it good? Not at this point. It’ll certainly get better, but in the space of narration it’ll absolute miss the vital subtleties that make human narration enticing. (Same goes with art and writing in general: the robots will never understand those little things, those little beats, the larger emotional throughline, and so forth.)
Is it necessary? I’d argue no. Cheap or free insulin is necessary. Health care is necessary. AI narration is… a frippery, really. I note here that AI audio narration for some things could certainly assist anyone with visual impairment, and to Piesing’s point this might be best with things like technical manuals or academic textbooks. But that’s also quite a bit different from, say, narrating a novel or a non-fiction book, and it’s quite a jump from one thing to the other.
Is it desirable? Not for me and, I hope, not for most others. This may feel like a leap, but in a time of pandemic (and figuring out life in the midst of pandemic), I think we’ve come around to the idea that it’s actually pretty nice to connect with other FLESHY MEATBAGS both online and especially in person. Humans may not be awesome en masse, but individually, they’re pretty fucking great, and to go back to the first point, I think humans in narration and art and writing form part of that connection we want to make. I don’t want to read the novel an ATM writes. I don’t want my car to paint my portrait. I want art and stories and the voices of actual BLOOD-FILLED THOUGHT-HAVING PERSONS.
Yes, as a technology as I expect AI will continue to inform our daily lives on the regular. It already is. We will surely find a broad degree of problem-solving being done by AI in hospital systems, in GPS, in coding, in engineering — sometimes this will be a good thing, sometimes (aka, more times than we’d like to admit) the AI will come with all the unseen biases and prejudices the designers and programmers accidentally (or purposefully) baked into it.
But consumer choice matters, as does the choice of those in power.
If you, the reader, the viewer, the listener, don’t want it — it doesn’t happen.
If the people in charge of making decisions don’t want it — which really only happens if they think there’s going to be blowback, enough to harm their reputation and bottom line — it doesn’t happen.
If the artists and writers and editors and narrators don’t want it to happen — well, that one gets stickier. Because all too often, we get steamrolled. But I think this is a place where we have some autonomy, too. I’m a writer, and I damn sure don’t want artificial intelligence writing my books, because then I’m out of a job. So it would be mighty hypocritical of me to suggest that I’m okay with someone using AI to design a book cover of mine, or to edit my books, or to narrate those stories. I can push back there, and this is me, doing that.
I will not have AI-generated book covers on my books.
I will not have AI narrators.
I do not want AI mucking about in my books at all, please and thank you.
Listen, I flirted with AI-generated images because it was nifty to ask a piece of software to design RON SWANSON AS A POKEMON or some goofy shit, but when you see that the digital sausage is being made from the art of real artists (SOYLENT DIFFUSION IS MADE OF PEOPLE), you start to flinch at the idea. I certainly did. I also recognize that narration and writing from AI aren’t necessarily pilfering “style” as directly as it seems it is with art — but dollars to donuts you’re going to start to see AI writing crib whole phrases or sentences from working writers, you’re going to see AI done “in the style of” an existing narrator or actor, you’re going to see humans turned into chum to feed the capitalist sharks, because that’s what this is. (And yes, I recognize we are all participating in a system of capitalism and it’d sure be lovely if we could all just have a Universal Basic Income and blah blah blah if we all lived our socialist art dreams where we created what we created because it gave us beauty and not because it gave us a paycheck. But I still live in the real world where my bank really wants me to pay my fucking mortgage. This isn’t revolution. It isn’t praxis. Artificial intelligence will just make rich people richer. It will not magically undo our system of chits-and-ducats, okay?)
Never mind the fact that cutting out audiobook narrators also cuts a lot of jobs; never mind the fact it only gives big company more power, not less, as either some publisher or maybe Amazon/Audible or even just some Elon Muskian tech bro charges you for the “privilege” of having a dead-voiced droid tell you the tale at hand, cutting out all the actual creators in the process.
Yes, I understand that the article’s author is suggesting this will broaden the exposure for indie writers and such — but those indie writers could hire indie narrators, or indie artists for their covers, or indie editors. Writing a book isn’t easy, and publishing one isn’t free. Even using AI, the cost is coming from somewhere. Somehow, that price is extracted. Better to ensure a fellow creator is seeing that benefit, isn’t it?
More to the point, audiobook narrators do an incredible job at layering the work of an author with the additional strata of their own human experience — it brings to the table their inflection, their attitude, their (to be redundant) humanity. Acting and narration aren’t just DOING THINGS and SAYING STUFF. Just like art isn’t FILLING IN LINES WITH COLOR and writing isn’t SENTENCE CONSTRUCTION. It takes human experience. And it feeds human experience.
Man, c’mon. Stories and art are human endeavors. They just are. We tell our stories and paint on the cave walls and sing our songs because we want to be heard, we want to tell you things that we’ve seen and that we feel, we want to feel less crazy and less alone, and we want to stitch our thread into the tapestry of human experience. We don’t want a shitty robot to do it for us. And I hope you don’t want that either.
EAT SHIT, ROBOTS.
WE DON’T WANT YOUR BEEPS AND BOOPS AND YOUR WHIRRING MURDER FINGERS BECAUSE WE ALL KNOW THAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE PLAN, TO JUICE US FOR OUR FLUIDS AND TURN US INTO SOFT BRICKS THAT DO NOT CORRODE OR DEGRADE YOUR HORRIBLE WHEELS OR CLICKING SPIDER LEGS
GOOD DAY, ROBOT
I SAID GOOD DAY
As I have the aforementioned mortgage, I remind you that I’ve written some stories about artificial intelligence and particularly what it does when it gets a little bit over its skis, so to speak. So, if you haven’t checked out WANDERERS and its sequel, WAYWARD, well, I’d sure love it if you did so, and yelled about it to all your friends and family and pets.
(P.S. — someone here is going to call me a Luddite. And here I ask you to read up on the Luddites. “They protested against manufacturers who used machines in what they called ‘a fraudulent and deceitful manner’ to get around standard labour practices…. Mill and factory owners took to shooting protesters and eventually the movement was suppressed with legal and military force, which included execution…”)