Can Robots Write Criticism? An Interview with Oscar Schwartz

We asked festival artist Oscar Schwartz about communication tech, bots and criticism ahead of his appearances at Sticks and Stones and the Criticism Masterclass.

You’re appearing in a debate at EWF 2016 about whether ‘technologies such as Twitter and texting are degrading the English language’. Without giving too much away, how do you intend to argue, and why?
People are always scared of new communication technologies. Plato writes that when the god Theuth gave Pharaoh Thamus the invention of writing, he refused it on the basis that literacy would destroy wisdom and make all young people ignorant. After the invention of the printing press, people figured out how to read silently instead of aloud, but were accused of being possessed by the devil. Now, with digital communication technologies, apparently we are losing our capacity to concentrate or generate ‘quality writing’. I think we’re just concentrating in new ways. An old school-friend of mine who hated English class is one of the most prolific Whatsapp users I know. He spends his days reading and writing, which is something no teacher could ever get him to do.

In your essay ‘Doomed to Violence’, published recently in Fireflies, you write, ‘Violence materialises on Twitter first as news, then as commentary on the news, and finally as commentary on the commentary…because of the amount of time I spent on Twitter, 2015 was the most violent year of my life’. Would a screenless world be a less violent world?
Physically no. But maybe psychologically? Screens facilitate the disembodied distribution of violence. One violent event on the other side of the world can be distributed to millions of people via the network, appearing on the screen. So while certain statistics show that incidents of physical violence around the world are reducing, the psychological impact of that violence is pervasive, globalised. The answer isn’t to ban screens, though. It might be tempting to blame the non-human messenger—the screen—instead of the human causes.

You’re also appearing at the EWF 2016 Criticism Masterclass, speaking on a panel about experimental criticism. What does that term—‘experimental criticism’—mean to you? Is it useful for describing the kind of writing you do?
I guess, for me, experimentalism is often about figuring at how form can communicate an idea. There are some people who are just amazing writers. Their writing is so good that it can carry any idea. I find writing really difficult and so I constantly have to experiment with form so that I can communicate new ideas. Also, when I write criticism I usually try to start with a question that I want the answer to. Like when I was writing that piece ‘Doomed to Violence’ the question that I wanted to answer, through the film I was writing about, was why people share stories of horrific violence on social media. The experimentalism occurs as a means of answering this question for myself, or at least trying, and often failing, to come to an answer.

Your website Bot or Not, described as a ‘Turing test for poetry’, seeks to collect data about whether real people can distinguish between poetry written by poets and poetry written by computers. Telling computer-generated poetry apart from human-generated poetry—especially when the human in question is Gertrude Stein—is much harder than you’d expect, and it seems fairly clear that computers can (and do) write poetry. Could a bot ever write criticism?
Bots can definitely be used as a form of critique. It’s already happening, particularly in the world of Twitterbots. Darius Kazemi, for example, made a bot called @TwoHeadlines. @TwoHeadlines combines two news headlines to create a novel, often absurd news item. For example, ‘Donald Trump joins cast of Game of Thrones’. For me, this bot is a critique the role of automation in human communication on online social platforms. Kazemi conceptualises his bots as ‘shining a spotlight on the algorithms and data streams that are nowadays humming all around us, and using them to mount a sharp social critique of how people use the Internet—and how the Internet uses them back’.

Oscar Schwartz is a writer and researcher for Melbourne. His award-winning writing on the cultural implications of technology has been published in The Monthly, The Lifted Brow and VICE, among other publications. Oscar has taught creative writing at Monash University, and has lectured in Digital Media at Victoria University and University of Melbourne.

Oscar Schwartz will be appearing at Sticks and Stones and the Criticism Masterclass as part of the 2016 Emerging Writers’ Festival.