A Brief History of Writing: From Human Meaning to Computational Pattern Recognition and Beyond

Gary Hall and Joanna Zylinska

Posted filed under Featured, Research.

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What forms will literature and creative writing take ‘after AI’? And what will happen to the book? Will it survive as a medium? Or, like the Sony Walkman and Nokia mobile phone before it, will the printed codex move into obsolete retro-mode, having been replaced by functional iterations of itself in different states of mutation?  

 Stories about the end of the book and the death of human creativity are of course nothing new. However, such semi-apocalyptic narratives have taken on an additional urgency in the age of machine learning technologies, especially in their ‘generative AI’ guise. Rather than join in with the general lamentations, could we view the current period of transition from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg – and, with it, from human meaning and interpretation to computational pattern recognition – very differently: as providing an opportunity to radically remake our creative writing and publishing practices? 

There are good reasons for taking such an opportunity, even if AI does feel like an unwelcome arrival in many respects. Building on the work of thinkers as diverse as Walter Benjamin and Jessica Pressman, the printed book can be viewed as both a symbolic embodiment of, and stand-in for, liberal humanism (Benjamin, 1955/1973). Moreover, it’s a liberal humanism that reproduces the values of well-off, Euro-Western white men (Hall, 2024). Now that the public release of ChatGPT has issues a serious challenge to the creative writing game, is this not an opportune moment to explore the development of new, non-liberal and non-humanist modes of composing and circulating literature?  

 The time certainly seems right to reimagine how we compose, publish and protect our writing: not just the conventional print-on-paper book, but also the idea of the named individual author as both romantic genius and sovereign, proprietorial subject that underpins it – and even the very concept of the human as a stand-alone agent of thought and action. Writing in 2022, the avant-garde novelist Ali Smith presents the modern period of transition as having resulted in Katherine Mansfield’s revolutionising of the short story form and Virginia Woolf’s experimental restructuring of the novel. Smith then questions whether contemporary fiction writers are being prompted by Brexit, the Covid pandemic, and the invasion of Ukraine to craft their own ‘literary transfigurations’ (Smith, 2022). Somewhat oddly, Smith appears less preoccupied with changes in media technology and their transformative impact. Considered together, however, do such profound socio-political and technical transitions not pave the way for a new revolution in writing and publishing? Might they not lead to the invention of literary forms that are distinct from both the modern short story and the novel, irrespective of how experimental they may be? Is the time ripe for creating Creative-Writing-As-We-Don’t-Yet-Know-It? 

The tone of this piece may sound speculative. But the propositions and desires it articulates arise out of a long-term practice on our part of radically remaking writing and publishing, across different media, in response to the technical conditions of the day. Our projects include setting up a non-profit publishing collective (Open Humanities Press); running a Living Books about Life series in which books are open to collective rewriting and reediting; redesigning a coffee table photobook as an online experience (Photomediations Open Book); and engaging in a theory-performance of a pirate philosophy. Some of our more recent experiments with AI, meanwhile, involve exploring the labour issues behind machine learning, and remaking Chris Marker’s science-fiction film La Jetée in collaboration with AI models. 

Our projects have always operated according to the principles of the ‘gift economy’. It’s in this spirit that we offer this brief history as a gift to the creative writing and publishing community. We end with an exhortation: today, in the era of AI, the author must no longer create literature; today the author must create creation (Schöffer in Zylinska, 2020).


Benjamin, Walter. 1955/1973. ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. London: Fontana. 

Hall, Gary. 2024, forthcoming. ‘Culture and the University as White, Male, Liberal Humanist, Public Space’. New Formations, special issue on Public Knowledge: The Academy and Beyond.

Smith, Ali. 2022. ‘“The Novel Can’t Just Leave the War Out”: Ali Smith On Fiction in Times of Crisis’. The Guardian, March 26, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/mar/26/the-novel-cant-just-leave-the-war-out-ali-smith-on-fiction-in-times-of-crisis

Zylinska, Joanna. 2020. AI Art: Machine Visions and Warped Dreams. London: Open Humanities Press, 57

This article is one of a series commissioned as part of MyWorld, a UKRI-funded project that explores the future of creative technology innovation by pioneering new ideas, products and processes in the West of England. We have commissioned writers, academics, creators and makers to contribute a written snapshot into how artificial intelligence is changing, enhancing and challenging creative writing and publishing practices.  

Joanna Zylinska is a writer, lecturer, artist and curator, working in the areas of digital technologies and new media, ethics, photography and art. She is Professor of Media Philosophy + Critical Digital Practice at King's College London and a member of Creative AI Lab, a collaboration between King's and Serpentine Galleries. Zylinska is the author of nine books - most recently, The Perception Machine (MIT Press, 2023, open access) and AI Art: Machine Visions and Warped Dreams (Open Humanities Press, 2020, open access). She combines her philosophical writings with image-based art practice.                                                          Gary Hall is a critical theorist and experimental writer, editor and publisher. He works (and makes) at the intersections of digital culture, politics and technology. He is Professor of Media at Coventry University, where he directs the Centre for Postdigital Cultures. He is also Visiting Researcher in the Centre for Philosophical Technologies at Arizona State University. His is the author of a number of books, including A Stubborn Fury: How Writing Works In Elitist Britain (Open Humanities Press, 2021), Pirate Philosophy(MIT Press, 2016) and The Uberfication of the University(Minnesota UP, 2016). He is a founding co-director of Open Humanities Press 

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