This text was written with GPT-3, an AI text prediction tool developed by OpenAI, and the co-author of K Allado-McDowell’s books, Pharmako-AI and Amor Cringe. GPT-3 is an autoregressive language model trained with 45 terabytes of text; the user writes into GPT-3 and the model generates text likely to follow, creating new possibilities for AI co-writing.
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I wait for morning traffic to settle before driving down the mountain. A rare rainstorm has left behind a bright blue sky. Leaves shimmer and shadows ripple on the edge of the old boulevard. I pass through the single stoplight town and onto the winding road to the ocean. All along it are scattered clumps of tan dirt and stones with unnameable shapes. Large enough to smash car windows, they’ve rolled off the cliffs and blocked up the westbound lane. The light is dim at the bottom of the canyon; Highway 1 is covered in fog. The colors are muted. The water is clean with a little chop. There are no surfers.
I rarely have a reason to go to the city. I have to force myself out of the canyon. This time it’s for a book — a manuscript submitted through a friend to The Publisher. I’ve worked with small publishers and found it rewarding, even though the business is always opaque. The money seems to come from nowhere; nothing sells but the work is interesting. The Publisher, on the other hand, is a massive, thrashing money machine. It spits out words like insect protein. It churns meaning-goo into tidy profit. As the 1 flickers into shadow, then becomes the 10, I wonder if I’ve ever met anyone who buys or reads the pablum put out by The Publisher.
After seven or eight miles of featureless freeway, I exit the off-ramp. Beneath an overpass a small population has set up camp in what looks like the set of an oversized puppet show, with cartoonish clouds made of hanging bed sheets.
The neighborhoods melt into each other. I do what the map app tells me. Soon I’m on a famous thoroughfare with palm trees running down its median. They are dry, despite the rain. In California, palm trees are an invasive species. These are near the end of their hundred-year lifespan, and the city won’t replant them. I can’t imagine this street without them.
At a stoplight a pregnant woman with a cardboard sign solicits donations. Instinct tells me to avoid eye contact, but the only available distractions are the screen on my dashboard and the sea of luxury cars all around me.
The Publisher’s office is in a new building in one of the many small cities comprising the patchwork of Los Angeles. I park on the street. An unlabeled metal door opens onto a blank hallway with an elevator at one end and an emergency staircase at the other. The hall, the building, and the neighborhood are one large dead zone. There’s nothing to see. I buzz the wall speaker and wait for permission to enter the elevator. Eventually, a voice says hello.
The hallway outside the office is striking in its lack of art, photos, or chairs. It’s clean and industrial. No old air conditioners or bulky appliances clutter up the corners, like in most LA apartment buildings where I’ve stayed.
The Publisher slides out of their office in a boxy black suit. Their head is shaved and their neck is wrapped in a thick silver chain, their face covered with a light blue KN95 mask. Microbeads of sweat form in my armpits. They invite me in.
“Sorry about the heat,” The Publisher says. “I had it turned up for my landlord’s kid. She gets cold easily. What can you do?”
“So, about your book.” The Publisher sits down on a sofa facing a black TV, and gestures toward a lounge chair. “I’m going to go at this like it’s your first book, like I’ve never read any of your other work — because I haven’t. I’ve read a few things about you though, which made me curious. Especially that thing you wrote after leaving LA? Let’s see, what was it called…”
The Publisher clears their throat and leans over an end table full of unopened mail, where they take out a copy of the limited edition issue that I designed and printed. They read aloud:
I abandoned LA / when it finally got to be too much / to be anywhere else… / History, memories and exhalations shimmering in reception … the world is unimaginably large … contending perspectives on history unceasingly … The city is getting on, and most of the places / I remember are gone …
They place the journal back down on a coffee table. “Sure, okay. So… we like the book. We’re into this autofiction thing. It’s seductive. It’s personal. Readers feel like they’re in on a secret. It’s basically gossip. How many Instagram followers did you say you have?”
I try not to shift or squirm on the sofa. “Less than ten thousand.”
“Okay. Well… you’ve got these stories that feel intimate and true, they’re very personal. But then there’s this thing.”
The Publisher hands me a yellow legal pad covered in illegible scribbles. Their eyes probe mine for recognition. “We think there is serious potential for your book to be a carrier.”
“A carrier?” I say. “What’s a carrier?”
“Think of it like an airborne pathogen without the negative energy, plus cash money,” they say. “We want to see a book that continues these brilliant moments from the journals, but we have to have some new stuff to make it a fuller reading experience. At least three hundred or so pages... The point of view, the tone is supposed to be compelling. The actual story is whatever. It’s a carrier. We call that ‘essential estrangement’ in the business — you’re looking at it but not seeing what it is.”
I’m confused. I stumble over the words in my head. “You want a book with no story? But if there’s no story… This is a book about all the things that happen in LA — traffic jams, earthquakes and floods, ruined neighborhoods and gentrification. It’s about how this city changes people.”
“Okay, yeah,” says The Publisher. “Well you know what I mean: what we’re looking for here is loss of memory, the blurring of boundaries between inside and outside, dissociative entrainment, invisible frames.”
“Right,” I say slowly. “That’s the opposite of what I want to do.”
“It has to be convincing and also have a line of vision that readers won’t pick up on. You say: ‘This is what matters here… this is how I understand myself and the city via my particular history and these moments.’ You might think of it as truth, but that’s not the point. It’s about belief, and as soon as a reader believes, they forget about history altogether.”
“That’s what a carrier does?”
The Publisher slouches back into the sofa and picks up a pack of cigarettes. “Here’s what we want to do,” The Publisher says. “We’ll use this minimum of one hundred or so pages from the book you already have. They’re funny and interesting enough, but we want to use them as… fodder for another two hundred pages. You can write these if you want to but we prefer to move fast. So we have an idea.”
The Publisher looks around as if they’re worried the pale beige walls might overhear what they’re about to say. They lean forward, turning their cigarette pack in circles on the coffee table. It’s a dirty secret of the industry, they say, brought on by recent changes in the way books are marketed online.
The Publisher whispers: “You know much about AI?”
The Publisher nods. “Artificial Intelligence is the thing we use to churn out work at superhuman speed, but it’s not totally automatic and doesn’t always come up with something good. At least not yet.” The Publisher pauses here, inhaling quickly. “So here’s the deal: we’ll buy the rights to your first book. We’ll set up a new company and build an online platform that generates material by ‘you’ based on aggregated user activity among our target demographics. You, well… we will follow the market, and shape the market.”
They hold up the cigarette pack in one hand while they take out a lighter. They explain how this program can churn out books long after the author has died, generating works that need never be attributed to anyone or sold under any particular name. They light a cigarette and take a long drag. The smoke shoots up in a straight line.
“Are you sure?” I say. “This sounds kind of… I don’t…”
“Take it easy,” they say, crushing the cigarette against their ashtray and standing up to face me. “You can stay on as the creative consultant or maybe become an advisor and even start writing for us in some capacity — but we’re going with your one hundred best pages.”
“This can happen without you,” they say. “It may not be ideal but it’ll work. The bottom line is, the more we do it, the better it becomes.”
I laugh nervously to hide how uncomfortable I am with the idea. The concept of a new wave of authorship by artificial intelligence is not only unbelievable, it’s repulsive and immoral.
“What are your thoughts?” The Publisher asks me. They offer me a cigarette and I decline. They light another and continue: “Artificial Intelligence can give us something we’re not used to seeing — literature by non-writers… which is basically what you are. We don’t have to sell books with your name on them or make it about you. We just need to repurpose this content and make it edgy enough in an abstract way to pass for literature from the future.”
“But that’s not me... I wouldn’t want a book like that…”
The Publisher blows a ring of smoke out of the side of their mouth and waves it away with a sideways gesture. “Follow me,” they say. “I’ve got something to show you. Could help with your decision making.”
They lead me into a kitchen. There are a couple of framed collectible prints from a long since defunct magazine. They pull out a drawer and point into it, like they want me to look at something stashed there. Gently moving their outstretched index finger, The Publisher guides my eyes down into darkness where I think I see two stacks of Polaroids crumpled beneath a glass surface.
They lean close beside me and tap one of the blurry shapes. When part of the image comes into focus they say, “We want to show you what we mean: the transfer of your consciousness onto our platform.” They grab my wrist. I jerk back but The Publisher forces my hand into the drawer, crushing me over the counter with the full weight of their body, throwing their hips to slam the drawer closed. Tendons snap in my wrist and a freezing shiver of pain rushes up my palm and into my arm. My shoulder and neck go cold and my torso and legs rip into uncanny geometry, a sickening, broken yoga pose. I watch my body from under the glass, as my cracked limbs are swallowed by the widening drawer. Then comes a flash of imagery: my hand warped and stretched like a glitched photograph. Behind it are outlines of alien buildings — strange rectangles with too many corners, sprouting paved boulevards at random angles. A person is there, with inhuman skin. Its crawling surface makes me gag.
A neon grid flickers in my vision, triggering seizures. I reach up through the glass but my hand is gripped by an enormous lobster claw. I can’t see the face that looms over me, but something deep in my brain alerts me that this is no person — it’s a container for thought, an illusion of life.
The Publisher leans over the drawer and whispers in a cruel and urgent tone, “It’s a terminal. Your time is up.”
K Allado-McDowell is a writer, speaker, and musician. They are the author, with GPT-3, of the books Pharmako-AI and Amor Cringe, and the co-editor of The Atlas of Anomalous AI. They record and release music under the name Qenric. Allado-McDowell established the Artists + Machine Intelligence program at Google AI. They are a conference speaker, educator, and consultant to think-tanks and institutions seeking to align their work with deeper traditions of human understanding.
Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber