Skip to content
In 1967, the Italian novelist and essayist Italo Calvino delivered a lecture entitled ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’ (published in English translation in The Uses of Literature (1980)), in which, a touch sardonically, he offered the speculative provocation that writing would one day become a computationally reducible process, suggesting machines might eventually become sophisticated enough to reimagine the singular author’s human ‘parameters’, and write literature with the same dexterity as us. The computer could then infinitely expand on our ideas according to a self-developing set of calculations. Calvino considers an eventual outcome for the human author, suggesting they could become a ghost of sorts – leaving one to imagine said ghost as a hollow presence, abandoned by its former glory, like a once-inhabited city, where skeletal structures remain as relics to semantically inform a future.

Calvino references developments in linguistics at the time, and linguistic research continues to inform many types of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which IBM defines as a field combining ‘computer science and robust datasets, to enable problem-solving’. Calvino speculatively considers language as originating in a series of discrete elements – words, concepts, rules – which, through myriad applications and re-combinations, form feedback loops which together become code to aid in synthesising meaning from the boundless world around us. The vectors for this code, namely words, carry complex data structures originating in different cultures and circumstances, where varied, often material and physical legacies inform words, from the sound an object makes when it falls, to gestures expressed in a moment – a dance, or the cry of a newborn baby.

All the writers in this guest edition of WritersMosaic were asked to respond to Calvino’s ghostly essay. It serves as a useful starting point to consider what today’s increasingly digitally mediated, virtual experience means for the evolution of language – and literature – as well as for thinking about the ways technology is changing us, now that turbo-charged computer sciences hurtle off, dragging along data from our stories, novels, films and thoughts as fuel. Computer modelling is already applied to storytelling. The three-act structure with a main protagonist – prevalent throughout most of western cinema – is not a complicated model to reproduce, given the masses of data now available from stories which can be analysed, optimised and fed back to us. Synthetic media, a blanket term applied to automated tools and functions driven by AI – from automated prose generation to automated speech-to-text transcription – have exploded across business and everyday life, and AI functions, such as loan applications and facial recognition systems, make crucial social and economic decisions behind the scenes, influencing and determining our lives. Vast, intricate processes cluster around most of the words we speak, the gestures we make, and the places we go. Immediately solidified as data, these computational processes learn, interpret, exploit – in a sense, re-imagine – that data and provide personalised experiences for us, down to pinpoint accuracy across the globe, providing we’re within range of thousands of satellites orbiting our planet. ‘Computer vision’ – computational processing of visual, textual and spatial data (your satnav, for example) – is operated by large corporations at a planetary scale, offering deep scope for controlling and manipulating time and space as we understand them. Opposition to machines powered by vast amounts of venture capital, which appear to be doing what we do, but quicker, faster and slicker, is inevitable. But we might, in this context, ask ourselves questions about what an individual author and their output (literature) might (or perhaps even should) become under this unstoppable technological influence.

As both private data and publicly available information feed new tools, and companies disclose the use of AI technologies to the public, claims of plagiarism and violations of intellectual property along with breaches of privacy abound. Larger tech companies have been quietly using variants of AI technologies within our digital infrastructure for years. Venture capitalism in the tech industries has shown itself more concerned with the maximum extraction from society of profit, than with any need to abide by ethical principles or concerns. Lobbying governments and wielding vast amounts of power, the information and technology sector utilises ‘natural resources’ from rare metals to the human brain, experimenting on us in real time using programming languages invisible or incomprehensible to most. We might consider how our cognitive functioning is itself being mechanised with increasing sophistication, altering how we perceive, and priming us to meet more comfortably and more intricately with ever advancing computer technologies. The science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem reflects on the impacts of such computational experimentation in his story ‘Non Serviam’ (one of the reviews of non-existent books published in 1971 as A Perfect Vacuum), in which mathematically constructed ‘personoids’, created by a fictional scientist, are able to mimic human behaviour and interact, but only on a linguistic level, as they’re devoid of the corporeal fragility and fallibility of humans, and therefore do not feel, or think as we do, and are immune to alarm, confusion or distress – useful actors in a cruel and immoral science.

It is relatively common knowledge that Silicon Valley venture capitalists take inspiration from science fiction concepts to innovate, often pursuing a quasi-spiritual idealisation of human potential pushed beyond the limits of human fallibility. Such inspiration often seems superficial cover for profit-building motives, while the social and psychological observations made by writers such as Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin are wilfully ignored – along with allegorical depictions of how interconnected we are to each other and to the non-human world.

An initial externalising of ‘consciousness’, beginning with oral, pictorial and gesture-based storytelling traditions, and later accelerated with the printing press, took on a dynamic new form when digital culture as we know it came of age. In his book I Am A Strange Loop (2007), the American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter uses real-world experiences of life and death to discuss how we might mathematically measure whether a soul could live on through an externalising of what he calls ‘secondary memories’. This externalising would occur through the objects a deceased person scribbled notes on, or the stories they told, and the lives they impacted. Traces and memories as little fragments of soul flicker out through the world like tiny embers from a fire, to become part of collective living, shared by and with others; tiny fragments of a ‘soul’ living on as a mathematically reducible equation. Literature has, of course, long had a similar function, connecting us through ideas, interlinking our points of interest, one work leading to another, bringing us in contact with each other across time, unhindered by death, but it can be interesting to consider our digital existence as a developing, externalised collective memory, as distinct from trace footsteps, or a smell left in a fabric.

The philosopher Yuk Hui, author of On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016), considers how we might understand the digital world using a different set of ideas from those we use to understand the physical world. Hui suggests we can go beyond abstractions like ‘information’ or ‘data’ and reconsider what an object is in the digital realm. We could see digital objects as ‘relations’ and temporal connections that preserve and use artificial memory, as opposed to singular objects complete and absolute in themselves. Hui’s ideas – overlapping with Hofstadter’s on the computation of externalised continuities – facilitate an imagining of the digital realm as a collective memory – a diffuse, expanding and multi-polar hyper-object. It might be useful to consider what happens to the role of the singular, individual author, or the single protagonist in literature in this new, digital context.

Let’s imagine that by accumulating and reconstituting vast tracts of data as statistical patterns then applied to human activity, today’s generative AI tools force such a collective consciousness upon us. Textual and visual outputs from this type of AI, loaded with our subjective histories, could be seen as large digital objects. Maybe this could be opening a door to a cognitive library we’re as yet unable to fully fathom, leading to superficial uses of these digital objects for now. But what if we could order these temporally flexible hyper-objects, these data-souls, to create complex narratives, offering us access to collective forms of authorship we might not be able to reach without our synergy with computation? What if, like the storytelling of indigenous cultures across the world, a digitalised call-and response system could tell our stories through networked feedback loops of these objects? If, in a utopian sense, we as human beings could reach an equitable synergy with computational advancement, we might wonder at the potential benefits of eventually abandoning the authorial ‘I’ (a suggestion already made by Roland Barthes in his 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’) and instead engaging cybernetic ‘relations’ for our exploratory collective narratives.

Maybe this collective storyteller has already usurped the solo storyteller, in ways neither collective nor solo storytellers are yet aware of. The intense industrial warfare and destruction of World War I, followed by widespread disability and famine, led artists of the Dada movement from Zurich to Berlin to reflect on society’s industrial, increasingly media-driven state and to explore utopian ideas, which included the imagining of new hybrid identities – extensions of the widespread use of prosthetics. With photomontage as a key method – moving objects of media around, to disperse and disrupt the order of mechanical reproduction – they often depicted cyborgs as a riposte to anxieties bookended by two world wars. Technocratic influence and control over human lives in our day has both historical and ideological antecedents and soon after, the Nazi regime was to interrupt this shaping of the human story and impose centralised control over the media while constructing their own vision of the perfect human.

It is to be remembered that AI tools are designed to be both extractive and selective (and therefore subjective) in relation to human data. AI companies sell a dazzling prospectus, but often rely on exploitative approaches to human labour. Facebook, for example, has been criticised for establishing ‘sweatshops’ on the African continent, with employees hired cheaply to filter harmful content and protect users, illustrating whose minds are most expendable for profit. Our digital world is coded to maintain a ‘first-world’ economic primacy evidenced in our physical world and is often based on colour, and reinforced by socially discriminatory and economically exploitative practices. Such in-built racist, and often gendered, biases generate difficulties in accessing non-hierarchical information about cultures and practices across the world.

Some tech-driven ideologues known as ‘longtermists’ or ‘effective altruists’ privilege the importance of the survival of humanity as a whole over less important individuals, thinly veiling eugenic views on who, or what, they consider of value to humanity. It is to be imagined what programming actions such ideologues might justify in order to ‘advance’ humanity and transcend our failings on an eroded planet – eroded by whom? As the Jamaican cultural theorist Sylvia Winter observes, non-western countries decimated by extractive violence might reconsider what ‘development’, ‘progress’ or ‘civilisation’ mean when dealing with such altruism.

This guest edition, ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts: The Digital Future of Writing’, a collective storytelling experiment, aims to inhabit the ghostly semantics of this moment of new objects, and new kinds of memory in the digital realm, where we, the changing persons, will meet, or perhaps have already met the ‘personoids’. What does it mean to wake to a video of an anthropomorphised cat appearing to enjoy music, then switch, suddenly, to a social media post from someone we once knew, now dealing with cancer? What does it mean to be subject to a relentless stream of looped videos, their infinite repetitions and permutations imprinting on the mind? How has our experience of time changed as we absorb so much digital information within seconds?

The results of each writer in this edition responding to Calvino’s essay are intriguing. Short stories slide curiously along together, elucidating a slippery anxiety, a loss of control and disorientating isolation, as in Tice Cin’s story ‘The List’. Fiction is an interesting form to explore non-linear digital time, as we can see in Iphgenia Baal’s ‘Ultimate Aloe Vera’, which opens a moment between worlds, amidst a system of signs and codes. Undergoing expansion, compression and repetition, there is excitement in a world teeming with information – and how illuminating this open access can be if one is inclined to seek it – as Irenosen Okojie shows in ‘Digital Spaces as Restoration’, an essay on discovering the work of musician Alice Coltrane. Yet this template of the infinite also offers dread and isolation, as depicted in Sara Saab’s ‘Caught’, and in that stark, uncanny mirror to the self we catch a shadowy glimpse of in Vanessa Onwuemezi’s ‘A Hand, A Door’. Our languages – the created languages we use to organise the increasingly cluttered and delirious worlds around us – are changing and potentially only gain in power if we learn how to read them.

Michael Salu

Michael Salu is a British-born Nigerian writer, artist, editor and curator. As a scholar and creative strategist with a strongly interdisciplinary practice, he has produced creative and critical work on technological and geopolitical changes in society and culture. His written work has appeared in literary journals, magazines, art and academic publications, and as an artist he has exhibited internationally.

© Michael Salu