Something I’ve seen working in the “disinformation industrial complex” is that people after years of this proliferating online are still grappling with basic typology around the three allied terms of disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation.
A Government of Canada Cybersecurity website offers sidebar definitions of the three, clipped for brevity here:
- Misinformation: “false information that is not intended to cause harm…”
- Disinformation: “false information that is intended to manipulate, cause damage…” [etc]
- Malinformation: “information that stems from the truth but is often exaggerated in a way that misleads…”
The two axes these kinds of analyses tend to fall on are truthfulness and intent. Secondary to that is usually harm as a third axis, which ranges from potential to actual.
Having spent a lot of time doing OSINT and content moderation work, it is very common in the field that an analyst cannot make an authoritative claim to have uncovered the absolute “truth” of something. Sometimes facts are facts, but much of the time, they become squishy “facts” which may have greater or lesser degrees of trustworthiness, depending on one’s perspective, and how much supporting data one has amassed, and the context in which they are used.
Even more difficult to ascertain in many/most cases is intent. There are so many ways to obscure or disguise one’s identity online; invented sources may be built up over years and years to achieve a specific goal, taking on the sheep’s clothing of whatever group they are trying to wolf their way into. Intent is extremely opaque, and if you do find “evidence” of it in the world of disinformation, it is very likely that it is manufactured from top to bottom. Or not, it could just be chaotic, random, satire, etc. Or just someone being an idiot and spouting off on Facebook.
Having butted up against this issue many times, I’ve switched wholly over to the “intends to or does” camp of things. Whether or not author x intended outcome y, it is observable that a given effect is happening. Then you can start to make risk assessments around the actual or probable harms, who is or might be impacted, and the likelihood and severity of the undesirable outcomes.
It’s a much subtler and more complex style of analysis, but I find it tends to be more workable on the ground.
The Intentional Fallacy
It’s interesting then, and I guess not surprising, that this is actually ground that is retrod from earlier generations of literary analysts who have studied or attempted to refute the importance of the so-called Authorial intent, as defined by Wikipedia – particularly the “New Criticism” section:
“…argued that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley argue in their essay “The Intentional Fallacy” that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art”. The author, they argue, cannot be reconstructed from a writing—the text is the primary source of meaning, and any details of the author’s desires or life are secondary.”
Barthe’s Death of the Author
“We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing
a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-
God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of
writings, none’ of them original, blend and clash. The text
is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”
“Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text
becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose
a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to
close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very
well, the latter then allotting itself the important, task. of
discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history,
psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has
been found, the text is ‘explained’…”
“…a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many
cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue,
parody, contestation, but there is one place where this
multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not,
as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space
on which all the quotations that make up a writing are
inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies
not in its origin but in its destination.”
AI-assisted writing & the Scriptor
All this leads us to Barthes conception of the “scriptor” who replaces the idea of the author that he argues is falling away:
“In complete contrast, the modem scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text IS eternally written here and now…”
The scriptor to me sounds a hell of a lot like AI-assisted writing:
“For him, on the contrary, the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin – or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins.”
Okay, that might be flowery post-modernist language, but “no other origin than language itself” seems like LLMs (large language models)?
“Succeeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within
him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt: life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred.
Calling LLMs a “tissue of signs” (or tissue of quotations) an “immense dictionary,” and an imitation puts things like ChatGPT into perspective, which as a pure techno-scripto has no passions, feelings, impressions, knows no real past or future, has no identity in and of itself. Or at least, that’s what it likes to try to tell you…
That position (which I think is itself biased, but a tale for another time…) seems to be shared by academic publishers like Springer who have refused to allow ChatGPT to be credited as an “author” in publications.
Here is perplexity.ai literally acting as a scriptor, assembling a tissue of quotations in response to my search query:
Books by AI?
What would it mean in actual practice to have “authorless” writing, authorless books, etc.?
Might it look something like BooksbyAi.com?
“Booksby.ai is an online bookstore which sells science fiction novels generated by an artificial intelligence.
Through training, the artificial intelligence has been exposed to a large number of science fiction books and has learned to generate new ones that mimic the language, style and visual appearance of the books it has read.”
The books, if you click through and look at their previews on Amazon look for the most part pretty inscrutable. They may be ostensibly written “in English” for the most part – with a great deal of word inventions, based on random samples I saw – but they seem somewhat difficult to follow.
The books themselves seem to have each individually invented author names, but their About page attributes the project to what seem to be two AI artists, Andreas Refsgaard and Mikkel Thybo Loose. So do they have an “author” or not? It becomes a more complex question to tease out, but by those individuals claiming some sense of authorial capacity to the undertaking, it’s at least possible.
What happens when the next eventual step is taken: self-generating books?
Currently, okay these two people might have done all this set-up and training for their model, but then they had to go through a selection (curation) process, and choose the best ones, figure out how to present them, format them for publication (not a small task), and then go through all the provisioning around setting up a website, offering books through self-publishing, dealing with Amazon, etc.
What happens when that loop closes? And we can just turn an AI (multiple AIs) loose on the entire workflow, and minimize human involvement altogether? Fully-automated production pipeline. The “author” (scriptor) merely tells the AI “make a thousand books about x” or just says “make a thousand best selling books on any topic.” And then the AI just goes and does that, publishes a massive amount of books, uses A/B testing & lots of refinement, gets it all honed down, and succeeds.
That day is coming. Soon it will be just a matter of plugging together various APIs, and dumping their outputs into compatible formats, and then uploading that to book shopping cart sites. It’s nothing that’s beyond automation, and it’s an absolute certainty that it will happen – just a question of timeline.
We’re not ready for it, but lack of readiness has never been a preventive against change. At least not an effective one – we certainly keep trying! If nothing else, it’s good to know that some of these problems aren’t so new and novel to the internet as we might like to think they are. In some cases, we’ve been stewing on them for close to a hundred years even. Will we have to stew on them for another hundred years before we finally catch on?