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Gladwell's Four Color Crime Drama Matrix
AIs and Narrative Morphology
I have put my name on the waitlist for access to DALL-E 2. I have also obtained an API key for access to GPT3. My intent is to shorten the time it takes for me to write the novels of my retirement and thereby accelerate the probability that monetization of my creativity happens before my hands get too arthritic to type productively, or my mind fails or some other such catastrophe. I’m also aiming to be gaming. That is to say as my twitch muscles demonstrate their atrophy and I become someone to be carried in FPS PvP, I will strengthen my strategic narrative skills. If literature can be gamed, I’m down for some fraction of that. In the worst case, it’s a cynical hedge against the failure of Enlightenment liberalism and the devaluation of its economic advantages. On the other hand, maybe I’m just an early adopter of tools that aren’t necessarily postmodern. It depends upon my content, neh?
Secondarily, it is a recognition of my old understanding that we really don’t know what to do with the several billion literate middle class people on the planet. We don’t know with any certainty that when we speak of ‘humanity’ that the actual people out there wish to conform themselves to the institutions we would build, even if they could be erected instantly. So while it’s clear that current institutions are not surviving the youthquake and the perfidy of the political parties, it’s not clear that even if they would be reformed that they will serve the self-interests of the next generation.
There has got to be something useful written in between the expensive formal education of universities and the postmodern dreck of Hollywood. After all, film was supposed to be an educational medium. The internet as it is now is filling the gap and in some respects taking over the news media, but I think in order to serve lifelong learning, a new class of creators need to emerge to bridge that gap properly. I am afraid that without AI tools, the individual writer and the individual musician does not stand the same chance that the individual professor has now. Let’s call it the New Literature.
I will grudgingly accept that this hedge is a concession to something I can’t exactly identify and that in fact I believe that so augmented pull a creative economy out of my ass. Then again, I think Kevin Kelly has a persuasive argument about the future of human augmentation that I am not necessarily duplicitous simply because I employ AIs in my creative process.
In fact, robust intelligence may be a liability—especially if by “intelligence” we mean our peculiar self-awareness, all our frantic loops of introspection and messy currents of self-consciousness. We want our self-driving car to be inhumanly focused on the road, not obsessing over an argument it had with the garage. The synthetic Dr. Watson at our hospital should be maniacal in its work, never wondering whether it should have majored in finance instead. What we want instead of conscious intelligence is artificial smartness. As AIs develop, we might have to engineer ways to prevent consciousness in them. Our most premium AI services will likely be advertised as consciousness-free.
All I can say is that I promise to be at least as graceful about it as Stephen Fry, which is to say slightly better than Oliver Stone and a damned sight better than Micheal Moore, obtuse boors all. I’m getting ahead of myself, then again, who doesn’t? Memento Yogi Berra re: predicting the future.
As far as I can tell, it has only been Robert Bly that I have read giving me a clue about the narrative tropes about manhood that have served me well. I need to buy a copy for my sons near and far. I recall that it might have been either Vladimir Propp or Georges Polti who set out to categorize all of the archetypes and dramatic themes of folktales. Even if it wasn’t Propp, I seem to recall that it was some Russian dude. My homework, your clue. The point is that in the absence of high-minded and truly inventive literature there are narrative folklore at a higher level than asinine memes. So I should formalize that sweet spot and get cracking.
I think that given the evolutions of GPT and DALL-E, I should be able to rip out illustrated novellas in short order. And given that I can get over the hump at some point in the future, I should be able to crank out a dozen. Some people have a sense of humor. I’m not sure what sense I have, but whatever it is can be augmented by these AIs if I can afford them. So there’s that.
To kick start this is the taxonomy of Malcolm Gladwell who connotes the following four forms of law and order dramas:
The Western (Chaos, Outsider)
In the Western, there is no law and order. When you call the cops, they don’t come because there ain’t none. They therefore require a hero who goes out and gets the bad guy and does the work necessary to create a satisfactory ending. This hero is an outsider. The greatest of all is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. If you haven’t watched it twice, then you really don’t understand the premises of America.
The Eastern (Order, Outsider)
In the Eastern, there is law and order, but in order to correct the evil, the outsider must become an insider and set things right. I seem to remember this is precisely the arc of the story of Hero with Jet Li. He must become the right hand man of the emperor to expose and defeat traitors.
The Northern (Order, Insider)
In the Northern, there is law and order and the insiders, no matter how challenged they are, figure out the mysteries, identify the bad guys and ensure that justice is served. Gladwell says this is exactly the plot of every episode of Law & Order, and I imagine he means CSI too. I’ve never watched Walker: Texas Ranger, but I’d bet a nickel that’s a Northern too. I would say the classic Northern would be Fargo.
The Southern (Chaos, Insider)
Finally, the Southern posits that the law and order that exists is so corrupt that it might as well not exist. So it is the wise insider that must fight to save the integrity of the system. He says this is the premise of every John Grisham novel. I think he may be right about all this.
So there are indeed formulae for our entertainments that leave us with a certain flavor of satisfaction. If I am not to die with the self-satisfaction of Diogenes, this is a vector I need to investigate and apply to my non-Stoic writing. In the meantime, I have observed some other things which may be close to universal. These are those cartoon dramas with survivors that give us all the comfort of being reasonably reasonable. I find some of these particular entertainments tiresome in the extreme, so maybe it’s just me.
The Comfort of Horror
This is the placement of an ordinary American, or a particularly vulnerable one, in a position to experience a kind of supernatural occurrence that forces them out of their middle class comfort zone. Inevitably, they stay naive too long and hover around a situation that is clear to the audience to be horrific. They then suffer from their own foolishness. In the alternative version, the innocent does not deserve to suffer but the supernatural force is so irresistible that they survive only through luck. At the end of the film, everybody walks out with the comfort that zombies don’t actually exist and aliens do not abduct and you can say ‘Candyman’ all you like with no consequences. Yet you can still play ‘what if’.
The Comfort of Credulity
This is the placement of an innocent or possessor of common sense into a series of escalating lies, broken promises and betrayals. The drama comes from our attachment to the honest, straightforward personality of the victim. This person either appeals to a superhero or through the psychic torture, manifests their own gritty superpower which they had been so successful in suppressing all of this time. The third and worse option is when they confront their tormentor with an accusation of this betrayal and try to shame them into an apology and a promise, once given are betrayed again.
I tend to absolutely hate the third scenario, which is everything I think about that show Daredevil. But I tend to love the second scenario which is the plot of three of my favorite badass films, The Accountant, John Wick and Nobody. I tend to like good badass films of this sort because I admire the humility of geniuses who live like peasants.
As I write this, the embarrassing irony of appropriating Gladwell’s appropriation of Propp is not lost on me. I am afraid of the power of narrative. So I will be careful. The New Literature must serve the individual and extend his talents. We already know that Substack is some part of this as blogging was decades ago. I definitely want to add data into the mix as well as multimedia, but I know I need AIs as well.