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Reviewed by:
  • From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution by Peter Swirski
  • Jason Boyd
Peter Swirski. From Literature to Biterature: Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution. McGill-Queen’s University Press. viii, 236. $29.95

Launching with the certainty that “computers will be able to create literature in and of themselves,” Peter Swirski’s “old-fashioned book of discovery” or “modern adventure story” rambles around “a synoptic map of the future in which the gulf concealed by the term ‘bitic literature’ … has been bridged.” Swirksi argues that “computhorship” will be possible when computers can self-program (that is, when they can learn and evolve, or “think”). He outlines intriguing scenarios about the cultural implications of computhored literature (“biterature”), imagining human criticism focusing on the computhor itself ultimately floundering as self-reprogramming exceeds human comprehension, and imagining computhors deluging the literary market with “masterpieces,” sidelining human authors and critics through sheer volume (although wouldn’t the market remain constrained by the capacities and preferences of humans?). A contrasting line of speculation argues that the computhor’s frame of reference or world view will result in biterature that is incomprehensible to humans. This leads to the paradoxical notion that humans might only then grant originality to computhors, but, if such work is beyond human comprehension, would have no basis for evaluating its quality or originality. This complicates Swirksi’s assertion that crediting a computhor with thought and creativity (as well as considering what rights a computhor should have) will depend on both social consensus about and the evaluation of what is produced. Is either possible without understanding?

Can computers (be said to) think? This question—which one would have expected would have preceded the question of whether computers can create literature—is famously addressed by the Turing Test (which tests for the (in)ability to distinguish a computer from a human interactant). Swirski’s response is to propose his own modestly labelled “Ultimatest,” which would assess “an interactant’s ability to function in ways that are intelligible to humans but not necessarily in ways that are indistinguishable from humans.” Since computers today easily pass this test, it is hard to see how it offers a compelling resolution to the question whether computers “think.” Swirski goes on to raise but not substantively enlighten the reader about important matters such as whether computhors would need desires and thus drives to be motivated to write, whether they would need to merely understand the human significance of emotions or actually develop emotions, and, with the advent of computhorship, whether future definitions of life would be limited to the anthropocentric and anthropomorphic.

From Literature to Biterature raises interesting issues concerning computational creativity, but, as its long-winded subtitle suggests, it lacks [End Page 305] coherence: in the second half the computhor gradually disappears, and, by the end of Part Two, the term computhor is used to designate any “thinking” computer. Part Three ditches the computhor altogether and skips from computer miniaturization to bio-, techno-, and auto-evolution to bald assertions like “the future belongs to artificial intelligence.” The exposition throughout is meandering and digressive, with chapters awash in unnecessary arguments, inapposite examples, and superfluous illustrations that have at best an attenuated relevance to the creative computer and that obscure the issue, ultimately allowing for only a super-ficial engagement with the potentials and problems of computhorship and biterature.

Jason Boyd
Department of English, Ryerson University
...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 305-306
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-16
Open Access
No
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