Flusser’s Demon.Writing Under the Eye of an Automatic Critic
In our word-processors and our social networks, algorithms read and judge our writing in increasingly sophisticated (and invasive) ways. This paper positions Flusser as a key theorist in the conceptualization of computer-mediated writing. In Into the Universe of Technical Images, Flusser glimpses the potential for “automatic critics” to filter and censor writing at a mass scale, not merely correcting infelicities but stringently enforcing all sorts of aesthetic virtues. For him, such a critic would be a “demon” that, in the style of the demon described by James Clerk Maxwell’s famous thermodynamic thought-experiment, would impact language at the level of its entropy. After considering the (slippery, conflicting, and provocative) ways that Flusser uses thermodynamic principles and information theory to imagine an automatic critic that encourages (a statistically-determinable kind of) creativity, I then consider my own example of a “Flusser’s demon.” StyleVise is an automatic critic that I designed to force me to use more complicated syntactic structures. I describe the workings of this system and think through what our linguistic universe would look like if such automatic critics were widespread. While Flusser foresees a future in which human judgment has been almost totally outsourced to machines, I worry about a different future, a “demonic arms race” in which we competitively scramble to acquire the most sophisticated artificially-intelligent writing assistants. Despite or because of this worry, I call for practitioners of “electronic literature” to turn towards the important task of designing demons that mediate our minds in ways that are beneficial not just to the individual but also to the public.