What I'm reading this week – July 30, 2021

The gig economy, chatbots and Chinese horror fiction

Welcome to this week’s dispatch of what I’ve been reading!

Some minor housekeeping before we begin: I’m thinking of soon taking this newsletter paid, mostly as an experiment to see what I can do with the form. I’d still do one free post a week (likely of a weekend) with paid subscribers getting a few more. Do you see yourself throwing a few bucks a month towards that? I’d love to hear from you1 – feel free to reply to this email if so, and the kind of writing you’d want to see more of.

And, as always, if you’re not subscribing you can do so below:

While I contemplate dipping my toe into the creator economy, let’s start with a critique of it.


It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it

I liked this bit from from Kyle Chayka at the New Yorker who is writing intelligently on the creator economy and whatever it means to participate in it. As I’ve covered a little in this newsletter, it often papers over much less exciting economic relations. And the difference between being an ‘influencer’ (bad) and being a ‘creator’ (nice) is mostly just marketing — very successful marketing, at that.

The word “influencer” emphasized a person’s magnetic effect on her followers, a nebulous charisma easily turned toward marketing. “Creator,” by contrast, stresses that everyone posting on social media is producing something, pitching in to the collective effort of making user-generated platforms compelling and thus profitable. This idea has proved highly marketable: the creator economy has reportedly seen $1.3 billion in investment funding in 2021 thus far, nearly three times the funding it received in all of 2020.

Whenever I think about this stuff, a part of me is like “who cares”. The vast majority of people are never going to have or even think about pursuing this kind of career or side-hustle, even if younger generations do engage with creator content quite a lot.

But at the same time, and as the piece above alludes to, there’s a continuum here with other forms of digital sharecropping throughout the gig economy, where supposed direct interactions between customers and producers are mediated by monolithic technological middlemen taking their cut and dictating the terms of engagement. This is just another manifestation.


Good chat

The San Francisco Chronicle has a somewhat disconcerting story out about a man who generated a GPT-3 chatbot of his dead fiancée using an online service called Project December.

GPT-3 is a language model designed by artificial intelligence laboratory OpenAI that uses deep learning and a vast corpus of 175 billion parameters to produce human-like text. A review in WIRED from last year described it as “provoking chills across Silicon Valley” with its uncanny responses to input, and early testers have used it to to generate all sorts of insane stuff:

My good friend Imran is using a GPT-3 to generate science fiction short stories over at The Shadow Canon. They are scarily good. (He does lightly edit and massage the output into something more fluidly legible.) As someone who harbours aspirations of publishing my own novel sometime, I hate it.

There’s a decent writeup from last year on Napkin Math about the possibilities and implications of GPT-3. This stood out to me:

GPT-3 can now build a social media following all on its own. What if it can not only generate content to build a following, but also generate content making fun of itself? It doesn’t have to be 100% effective for it to work. It just has to respond with a few words here and there. Before, bots could generate fake engagement (through likes and comments) with the goal of influencing the sorting algorithm. Now, bots can create fake influence with the goal of creating authentic engagement. 


Beasts from the east

The last decade or so has seen a deeper exchange of literature between the West and China, and nowhere is it more visible than in genre and speculative fiction. Many know about Liu Cixin’s buzzy sci-fi work (The Three Body Problem, The Wandering Earth), but there’s a richer trend emerging there as more Western spec-lit is translated into Chinese and vice versa. You see more cross-pollination of genre, ideas and form. It runs in tandem with Hollywood blockbusters, which now often take the action to China so as to appeal to its vast cinema audience (and deep-pocketed investors like Tencent).

I’m currently reading The Flock of Ba-Hui, which is a translated collection of cosmic horror stories written by a pseudonymous Chinese author named Oobmab. The country doesn’t really have a literary horror tradition to build off, so this is pure pastiche filtered through local sensibilities and mythology. I’m finding it very interesting from that perspective, even if the stories themselves aren’t very original like Cixin’s are.

This is from the foreword by one of the translators. It’s a trend I’m continuing to watch:

The spread of Western weird fiction into Chinese could not have come at a more opportune moment. Despite the existing stereotypes of a highly controlled and creatively stagnant internet (which is admittedly true in many areas), China in fact has a healthy and burgeoning online-fiction scene, largely free of official censorship and state interference. Over 330 million people — or about one in four Chinese — read online novels, with the majority being wuxia-style historical romances. It’s big business too: Tencent’s online ebook arm, China Literature, raised HK$8.3 billion from its listing in Hong Kong and has a market value of around HK$90 billion. Websites like wuxiaworld.com feature Chinese online stories translated into English and other languages. China’s online literary scene is composed of millions of independent creators, making the scene a breath of fresh air when compared to the digital versions of already established mainstream media titles that traditional publishing houses — both Western and Asian — continue to bank on.


Odds and ends

  • Thought this long piece from Freddie deBoer’s newsletter was a really unique, in-depth take on the often perverse incentives of the new attention economy.

  • Kaleb Horton’s massive piece on the Chowchilla bus kidnapping, a forgotten 20th century Californian event, is instantly one of my favourite bits of true crime writing.

  • This commercial and social history of poppers at BuzzFeed was fascinating. I’m endlessly interested in grey market products like this.

  • A breakdown of what MasterClass, which you’ve probably seen advertised to you about a trillion times on Facebook, is actually selling you. Hint: it’s not the education.

  • Ed Zitron has been writing interesting stuff about remote work and the future of the office over at his newsletter, and how he’s summed up a lot of that work in a new piece at The Atlantic. I think his thoughts on the multilayered anxieties of bosses and managers about remote work are perceptive.

  • A take on the success of young adult fiction which treats it as a kind of technology to address or soothe a growing lack of agency. Of course, all adolescent pop culture relies to some extent on a lack of agency and distaste for authority, but the fact a growing slice of YA fiction readers are in fact grown adults speaks to a widening of the gyre.

  • It’s fun to see Gawker back. The online world is incredibly different to when it was last popular, and the particular kind of entrenched, sniffy media elite it once satirised no longer has quite the power it once did. Interested to see where they take it.

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If you have no intention of ever giving me a single cent of your hard-earned, then you can also feel free to email telling me so, but be warned: my enthusiasm will be muted.