Writer in Residence

Don’t Stand Too Close to this Poetry!

By Edward Carson

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Your computer/tablet/phone are listening . . . and learning . . . and not always in the way you might expect it to benefit you.

Bruce Schneier wrote that “Surveillance is the business model of the internet.”

Search engines, social media sites and smart programs, including bots like Alexa, Google Assistant, Echo and Siri, are just another way for companies to keep track of what you’re doing, saying, searching or purchasing.

“By 2021, there will be almost as many personal assistant bots on the planet as people.”  

If you don’t already have one, those online bots are early manifestations of AI that have already reached a fairly surprising level of sophistication. Your voice is recognized. You can ask question, and direct them to do things like play a song or remind you in ten minutes to call someone.

As yet limited conversations are taking place with these bots that are starting to address emotional as well as intellectual issues. A poet friend with an advanced degree in electrical engineering is already programing/experimenting with bot poetry.

Home appliances now have a social life.

Fridges, stoves, dishwashers, lighting, TVs, phones, computers, furnace, AC, and security systems co-manage/coordinate many of your home entertainment, shelter, protection and environmental systems.

But the information flow is not one way.

It’s called surveillance capitalism.

As Shoshana Zuboff writes: “It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal [of business] now is to automate us.”

It’s a power to shape behavior, available choices and decision-making.

Now, think of all the ways you bring search, word docs and other electronic media into your writing. Your activity is tracked, and your searches shaped to suit that tracking.

Years ago, Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that the “contents of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” 

Make no mistake, through data collection, analysis and electronic media the business of business is just that. Big Data is continuously shaping what it provides to you in the service of that business. That can and probably probably already is reaching into what you write.

The trade-off is for personalized content (in a narrowing media bubble of information) in return for data on your interests and activities that can also be sold to retailers and manufacturers. But that data also shows up in the kind of information you ask from Google.

Roger McNamee recently wrote in Wired: “the business model is about tracking human beings, claiming eminent domain on their personal data, using it for behavioral prediction, and then using the tools of machine learning and AI to steer people toward outcomes that make those predictions more valuable.”

The original plan simply was to organize knowledge. Now it is about behavior modification through manipulating, exploiting, influencing, guiding and control.

Searching online, you are in turn searched: our interior, private lives opened into a public gathering of data (The Guardian)

Technology alters writing/reading by causing the brain to think in different ways, often resulting in a narrowing and flattening of critical reasoning and creativity, in addition to a shortening of attention spans both in the writing process as well as in reading.

What is happening to the reading brain as it unavoidably changes to adapt to an ever-widening array of digital media?

Search engines, social media sites and smart programs are programed to adjust and prioritize information to your personal preferences, choices, needs, biases, and interests. Accordingly, they flow that information, suitably shaded and ordered, back to you.

The more you use these programs, the more they shape for you a personalized and increasingly narrow and particularized flow of information. The programs are simply feeding what they see as your interests.

Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and other social media, with their predisposition toward paraphrase, aphoristic comment and emotional/confessional expression over a language of more substantive ideas, form and content, have the power to “trend” an author and to drive a layer of attention a mile wide and inch deep.

The result can sometimes become Fan Poetry or Fan Fiction . . . writing that seems more a product of the medium than the mind, a purposeful suspension of critical thinking.

Often in such circumstances writing that is banal and less challenging from a creative point of view rises to a level of attention (sometimes in print or eBook sales as well) far out of proportion to its critical worth. The direct, plain qualities of such writing easily suit and conform to the new media, appealing primarily to nontraditional readers.

Tailor-made for the electric media of the new century, a broader populace poetry of “instapoets” is emerging – writing that is what I think Russell Smith refers to as “the blunt and emotional jeremiad” – not unlike the emotionally prosaic “sweet kitsch” poetry of Rod McKuen from the 1960s.

Tony Hoagland is harsher: “ . . . narrative poetry . . . has been tainted by its over-use in thousands of confessional poems . . . the inadvertent sentimentality and narcissism of many such poems have imparted the odor of indulgence . . . .”

That noted, as a poet-friend says, “luckily for us, poetry is all about (at least in part) shifting, smearing, and plainly pushing meanings [and syntax] in all kinds of directions.”

Shaping and expanding in this new technological age, poetry needs to find ways of maintaining creative weighting and proportion between a writer/reader’s personal connection to its essential emotional core and to the intellectually objective experience of its creative execution.

Tune in for my next poetry post on Tuesday, April 9 when "Some Assembly Will Be Required"

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Edward Carson, writer and photographer, is twice winner of the E.J. Pratt Medal in Poetry and author of Knots, Birds Flock Fish School, and Taking Shape, as well as his most recent collection, Look Here Look Away Look Again. He lives in Toronto.