THR Web Features   /   April 26, 2023

The Human Reader

Italo Calvino foresaw generative AI’s necessary, and inimitable, companion.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( THR illustration [The Holloway Reading Stand; The Winterthur Library: Printed Book and Periodical Collection].)

Current debates about writing machines are not as fresh as they seem. As the footnotes of scientific papers quietly admit, much of the intellectual infrastructure of today’s advances was laid decades ago. Already in the 1940s, the mathematician Claude Shannon demonstrated that language use could be both described by statistics and imitated with statistics, whether those statistics were in human heads or a machine’s memory. As word got out about Shannon’s work, engineers and then artists tinkered with his ideas, wrote essays in which they mulled a future in which machines would write alongside us, and built the first (stuttering) generation of natural language generators. These were the first residents of the headspace into which so many of us have recently wandered.

One astute observer of that early scene, the novelist Italo Calvino, allowed himself to entertain the thought that a writing machine could rival his own considerable powers. In his 1967 lecture “Cybernetics and Ghosts,” Calvino recognized the digital age as an existential condition as well as a technological one, in which the ideas of Shannon, John von Neumann, and Alan Turing were changing the way that we saw ourselves and our machines. “The world in its various aspects is increasingly looked upon as discrete rather than continuous,” he writes, “I am using the term ‘discrete’ in the sense it bears in mathematics, a discrete quantity being one made up of separate parts.” As a result, thought (“which until the other day appeared to us as something fluid”) was being reconceived as “as a series of discontinuous states, of combinations of impulses acting on a finite (though enormous) number of sensory and motor organs.” Under the terms of this Discrete Age, the new “electronic brains” (i.e., computers) appeared “a convincing theoretical model for the most complex processes of our memory, our mental associations, our imagination, our conscience.”

Fields of human endeavor previously closed off from mechanization now seemed to be in play, including “the most complex and unpredictable of all [humanity’s] machines: language.” Calvino bears witness to the advances in natural language processing already occurring. Computers were “dismantling and reassembling” language—undertaking translations, performing linguistic analysis, summarizing passages, engaging in their own modes of reading. The author could not help but wonder if computers would soon arrive at his own door: “Will we also have machines capable of conceiving and composing poems and novels?”

Remarkably, Calvino concedes, almost immediately, that a “literature machine” (his phrase) could be a successful writer. He grants that this might seem like a strange stance, but then he explains that he has always been skeptical of the vision of writers as the chosen vessels of the “Voice of the Times” or the “Spirit of the World.” Literature, he argues, is not an inspired activity but a “combinatorial art”: “a constant series of attempts to make one word stay put after another by following certain definite rules; or more often, rules that were neither definite nor definable, but that might be extracted from a series of examples.” And if writing is a practice of piecing things together, then he reasons that a computer could do it, and likely do it well. He was, moreover, untroubled by the thought that he might be a “writing machine”—indeed, he thought that is exactly what happens to a writer “when things are going well.”

But while Calvino yields composition to the machines without a struggle, he clings tightly to reading. In fact, he argues that the rise of writing machines may even benefit reading, since now “the decisive moment of literary life will be that of reading.” Why? Calvino’s immediate answer is that reading is the site of “unexpected meanings,” which he explains on loose psychoanalytic terms as the moment when “a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working” “[slips] in” from another, unconscious level. In layman’s terms, Calvino is granting the reader the “aha moment,” the flash of insight, the shock of disclosure, the instant of recollection (of something perhaps known to an earlier self or to past generations). Traditionally, this meaning has been the writer’s charge; but Calvino argues that the electricity of literary discovery belongs equally to the reader. The writing machine’s entrance clarifies the priority of human reading.

This claim of reading’s priority would be enriched again and again in the author’s subsequent writings—prompted in part, I suspect, by his recognition of the increasing power of the machines. The crescendo comes in If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), a metafictional novel that records the diverse desires and postures we experience in reading. In the eleventh chapter, the second-person main character (you) encounters seven representative readers. One reader can barely read a few words before getting lost in the thoughts they inspire: “having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies.” Another likewise “isolates some minimal segments” but then stays with them, mining their “extremely concentrated density of meaning.” The third is captivated by rereading, wondering aloud whether we change between readings or if reading itself is an activity that “cannot be repeated twice according to the same pattern.” For the fourth, every book becomes part of an “overall and unitary book,” while the fifth reads in every book echoes of an urtext “that comes before all other stories.” The sixth loves the moment of infinite potential when facing the title page, and the seventh “the spaces that extend beyond the words ‘the end.’”

Machines may, Calvino argued, fit together “all the permutations possible on a given material,” but they cannot replicate the myriad and often unpredictable operations that occur within our reading. Why? Because we can be any and all of these readers, and our manner of practicing these operations will be distinct, as will be their results. Calvino grasped that we are as much misreaders as readers, and that our most profound flashes of insight happen when we stray from the strict protocols of reading—when the words we encounter are mediated by the experiences of our senses and by our personal and collective memories. Wincorporate what we read into ourselves, transforming it and ourselves in the process, in a manner that mind-and-body-less machines, no matter how wide and finely woven their neural nets, cannot.

For Calvino, the “literature machine” was no more than a conjecture; he doubted that it would be “worth the trouble” to build one. But now that such a machine exists, Calvino’s meditations are crucial, because he calls attention to a dimension largely ignored in the current commotion. Generative AI dazzles us with its ability to write in an array of genres and, thanks to having absorbed Wikipedia and Google Books, to do so with surprising acumen on countless topics. And “they,” we are told, will only get better. But Calvino’s writing prods us to remember that the ultimate semantic receiver, selector, and transmitter is still us. In the global network of communicants, machine and human, we enjoy—and will continue to enjoy—a privileged position as nodes mediating word and world, past and present, matter and spirit. Amid the staggering investment now taking place in the next generation of loquacious artificial intelligences, should we not be equally concerned about training the next generation of humans—the ones who will solicit, evaluate, edit, and circulate the machines’ outputs? You may build a better writing machine, but it will be worthless unless you build better readers. Calvino anticipated the urgent question of our time: Who will attend to the machines’ writing?

This essay is adapted from part of one that will appear in full in the Fall 2023 issue of The Hedgehog Review.