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Attention, #NaNoWriMo Fans: No One Cares How Your F***ing Novel Is Going

Watching a person write is one of the most boring things in the world. Please don’t inflict your process on us.

Try staring at this for a while. It’s boring, isn’t it?
Photo: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s almost November, which means it’s roundabout the anniversary of when I last checked that I had muted the Twitter hashtag #NaNoWriMo and also its year-round ugly twin #amwriting. I just needed to be sure. I’ve just done this year’s annual check-up and yes – breathe a massive sigh of relief guys, wipe the sweat off that furrowed brow – they are still wholly blocked along with #NaNoPrep and also #NaNoWriMoPrep because I like to cast my dick net wide. To the best of my abilities I have ensured that the doors of my nuclear/NaNoWriMo bunker are shut tight for November, unless a Twitter technicality leaves me open to a torrent of inanity from everyone who thinks that peer pressure alone will be enough to make them finish their 50,000 word novel in the space of a month. I’ve got canned goods down here. I’ve seen The Road. I’ll be fine.

National Novel Writing Month is when 300k+ people sign up and swear to themselves/each other that they will write 1,700 thousand words per day, from 1 November to their final, juddering finish on 30 November. In one month they will go from being a primary school teacher or waitress or guy who fixes cars to novelist, which is a great thing. But over the next six weeks there will be a lot of people trying to help. There will be webinars hosted by people you’ve never heard of who have “novelist” and “writer” in their Twitter bio beside a black and white photo of them with their hand on their chin, wanting to teach you how to use a writing programme they designed to order to more easily organise your 50,000 words (accidentally set your novel in a shit place? Just do a universal Find & Replace and change it from Wigan to Paris! They’re basically the same, you don’t need to change anything else, this is a problem now solved – you can change this problem to a different colour on your problem chart). There will be blog posts telling you how to cheat your way to a great book (use the Snowflake Method! It’s like fractals but for stories! Here, let me explain fractals to you). There will be inspirational quotes to “unleash the novelist inside you”.  There will be articles about life-saving tips for writers written by previous NaNoWriMo participants, usually ranging from 5 to 12 tips, half of which are about believing in yourself. 

People will link to time-saving apps and spread the work about distraction-killing apps because while you are a person signing up to write a novel, clearly the last thing you want to do is actually write a novel. People will blog about the loneliness of being a writer, having been one now for three whole days. Others will talk about how they made themselves cry with a scene they just wrote, how they broke their own dumb heart. People will go into Settings and then Profile and delete “aspiring writer” from their bio and put instead: WORDSMITH. WORD DOCTOR. WORD ALCHEMIST. DREAMWEAVER. Plus actor. Or whatever.

All of Tumblr will be #writing the most politically correct book ever using all of their favourite hashtags (there will be no white people in these books, and if a white person is writing it they will be checking their privilege against everything that happens throughout, in footnotes). Some joker will bait the NaNoWriMo forums by posting an excerpt of Ulysses or Infinite Jest and asking for feedback, and they will be roundly rubbished on the boards for their rambling descriptions, superfluous words, and one helpful person will always suggest they pick up a copy of The Elements of Style by E B White to help them with the next few chapters.

Over on Twitter there will be thousands of these: “Bloody protagonist, taking the story in a different direction! Don’t they realise I’m on a tight schedule here?! #amwriting” and “Just realised why this novel isn’t making any sense. There’s a plot issue in the second arc. No sleep for me! #amwriting” and “what is another word for nervous? #amwriting”. Thesauruses exist. Other stuff to talk about exists. No one needs to know your process.

Because one of the most boring things in the world is watching a person write. They do not move. Their google searches are tedious; they google synonyms for words they just made up. If you ask a novelist how they wrote their book, it’s always “I researched a bit and then I didn’t get out of my pyjamas for properly ages.” That’s it. There was probably an exiting moment when a blob of apricot jam fell off a bit of their crumpet and they had to suck it out of the lapel of their dressing gown to avoid having to wash it properly. That’s it.

Don’t get me wrong – like everyone else with a Macbook and enough money to buy coffee, I sit in coffee shops and write my stupid novel. Pretty much everyone you know and love thinks they have a book in them, and pretty much everyone you know and love has roughly 3,000 words of it written in a dead file in the back corner of a hard drive three computers ago that they won’t tell you about. You are not special. No one cares how your novel is going. Maybe it’ll go somewhere, maybe it won’t. But the actual finished novel is entirely beside the point.

Just shut up and fucking write it.

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution