Thursday, April 19, 2018

Last Remaining Internet Author Paid accidentally by Parakeet

Dateline: Cubicle District 64, Year 2028Mystifying tens of millions of authors, Horatio Masterson is the only remaining writer who is still somehow being paid for his work, and in this exclusive report, we reveal the secret of his success.

The internet’s early enthusiasts promised a socialist paradise, but while advances in communications technologies encouraged many more people to speak their minds and try their hand at some art form, the “Let Information Be Free” movement ensured that most of these budding writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers, and other artists became paupers.

As we’ve all come to realize, the trouble was that the large manufacturers that advertised on the internet had much more clout than content-providers, because things like clothing, furniture, and cars were more in demand than ideas. Robots can produce things more efficiently than can human labourers, and so those people were swiftly put out of business. Unable to be retrained for the new economy, they took to overdosing on opiates, committing suicide, or getting themselves locked up in prison. 

Artificial intelligence provided the same unbeatable competition to those who had made a living with mental rather than manual labour. But whereas the machines used to manufacture material goods were enormous and costly, and thus not easily replicated, AI programs proliferated and so after 2025 anyone could create a work of genre fiction, a digital painting, a hit song, or even a computer-graphics-laden film just by turning on the AI on a common mobile device. Once art’s mystique was gone, demand for the arts dried up.

That didn’t stop the world’s artists from expressing themselves in their work, since they’re compelled to be creative; only the economic value of their products has fallen off a cliff. No one was interested in paying for a stream of content on the internet, including for this very article you’re reading, because so many artists were willing to work for free. After all, they created mainly to express themselves, not to make money. The market for news, pop cultural reviews, or philosophical articles thus became oversaturated.

Only Mr. Masterson discovered some trick to earning a living as a content-provider on the internet—in his case as a culture critic who writes articles on various subjects. A team of social scientists investigating the phenomenon confirmed that Mr. Masterson is human, not a bot or a cadre of hackers faking the payments. But Mr. Masterson’s articles aren’t noticeably higher in quality than the millions of other such texts available for free all over the internet.

The miracle is that someone somewhere is paying Mr. Masterson to write. We’re used to seeing all the internet money going to the advertisers, not to the thinkers and artists, as our species came to appreciate our inferiority to the new generation of machines and artificial minds.

But the secret of Mr. Masterson’s success hasn’t been revealed. Until now.

Our producers followed the money and discovered that his benefactor is a parakeet owned by a wealthy woman named Elizabeth Milton. Unbeknownst to her, the parakeet, named Jimmy, has gotten in the habit of pecking at the same keys on an old keyboard connected to Miss Milton’s computer that she’s left on for years but doesn’t use.

Coincidentally, the timing of Jimmy’s pecks coincides with the publishing of Mr. Masterson’s daily output of articles, so that as soon as each article is released, Jimmy has accidentally sent the author hundreds of dollars for that day from Miss Milton’s bank account.

Miss Milton confirmed that she’s never read anything written by Mr. Masterson, but that she doesn’t intend to turn off her computer, because she’s under the impression that Jimmy likes the sound of its humming.

“I suspected some such oddity,” said Mr. Masterson after we revealed our discovery to him. “It seems, then, I’m in a precarious position as a professional author. I’m the last of my breed. Should dear Elizabeth’s parakeet cease to push those precious buttons on the keyboard—or as soon as the bird passes away—I don’t suppose such a lucky confluence of events will happen again for me or for anyone else.”

Other writers resent Mr. Masterson’s stroke of good fortune. Tomas Bombastico is an unemployed teacher who publishes his lectures on YouTube and his academic articles on his blog—all for free, of course.

“I’ve read Mr. Masterson’s output,” said Mr. Bombastico. “His articles are nothing special. My writing is ten times more interesting and no one pays me a dime. And there are millions of other writers just like me, writing pages and pages that no one ever reads or pays for. It’s a travesty.”  

Mr. Bombastico resented the suggestion that if all those writers hadn’t been willing to sell themselves so short, perhaps the market wouldn’t have become oversaturated.

“We write because we have to express our ideas,” he said, “and we’ll do it for free if we have to. But where’s our crazy parakeet?”


  1. Esteemed Mr. Cain,

    I would just like you to know that your work is greatly appreciated, if only by a relatively small number of people so far. I discovered your blog by chance five years ago, and since then have been continually engaged with the ideas and arguments in your articles. Your work also convinced me to pursue a degree in Philosophy, and has continually given me much greater insight into the texts I have studied. It continually astounds me that your work has not yet been recognized by a wider audience, but I have little doubt that, even if it takes a long time, your work will eventually be recognized as an important contribution with vast implications that are impossible to ignore. In effect what I mean to say is, there are people out there whose lives have been changed by what you have written, and who are able to appreciate the rigorous philosophical arguments you have put forward as more than mere opinions or ideological theory (which is unfortunately what many people reflexively expect from the blog format). Our numbers will grow with time, and when I have the financial means I will begin making regular donations, as I am sure others will increasingly do as well (even if it may look more like the Lovecraft Circle and less like the New York Times Best Sellers List). I very much hope you do not become discouraged.

    1. Thanks very much, K. I appreciate your support. And I see that you've read between the lines on this one (the above article). My blog did cross my mind when I wrote this article, but it’s a much bigger problem. Indeed, my distinction between manufacturers and content-providers is likely erroneous, as I’ve since discovered. If anything, it will soon be easier to produce our own material goods (through digital fabrication, etc.) than for AIs to author novels and so on, as the link below explains. So it may be the big manufacturers and distributors that will go out of business first, including Walmart and Amazon. In any case, we may be heading for a socialist revolution in the coming few decades, but the problem will still be money. We'll need a crazy parakeet to keep the new system going.

      As for me getting discouraged, you don't have to worry about that. I do think there are many people who would get a lot out of my blog if only they knew it existed. There are numerous reasons why the blog isn't as successful as it could or should be. One is indeed, as you said, the blog format isn't as respected as the dotcom one. I intend to link a dotcom version of the blog to help with Google traffic. Maybe the YouTube movies I’m making will garner some attention.

      I don't get discouraged, though, because I really do write primarily for my benefit. I like to flesh out ideas, to challenge myself and to see all the thoughts together, curating them as I weigh one article against another, for example. It’s a big artwork made up of ideas. Daniel Dennett wrote something about this, about how we don’t really know what we believe until we try to write it up and we see it on the page or the screen. If I were subject to discouragement about my philosophizing, I would have stopped writing these articles a long time ago.

      I did get disgusted if not discouraged by my recent experience with the Thinking Christian website. I consider that website to be objectively inferior to mine even while his is apparently more successful (his website is listed as a top philosophy blog, which is infuriating, although he doesn't have a huge number of commenters like the cultish sites such as Jerry Coyne's blog). Some of the reasons his blog is more noticed are plain, since they have to do with the dumbing-down of the format. As I've said before, and as I pointed out to the “Thinking Christian” himself, he writes short articles with short paragraphs and short sentences and short words. And of course his articles aren't philosophically deep.

    2. So his success reminds me of a formative experience of mine, which I might have written about somewhere on this blog. In graduate school, a fellow student did everything she could to succeed, since she had a small child to feed. There are roughly two ways to succeed in academic philosophy: be a philosophical genius or be a shameless Machiavellian when it comes to the business side of academic work. I suppose there's a third path, which is to find the right balance between those two. (The problem with finding that balance is that the skills needed to succeed on either path are antithetical to each other.) Anyway, she took the second path. Her philosophical work itself was weak, which is to say she went into bogus, postmodern and women studies areas, and faked the rest. But her business skills were ferocious. She worked very hard building up her CV in all sorts of absurd ways. For example, she served as head of the graduate students council for at least a year, and as I recall she ran unopposed and somewhere around only one percent of the students turned out to vote. Still, she got that line on her CV. And she did succeed in that she became a philosophy professor (I'm not sure if she's tenure track). And years later, I recently saw her on a Toronto talk show I've been watching for years, called The Agenda, on which she demonstrated that she's become a full-blown, feel-good, radical feminist and “SJW.”

      By contrast, I'm neither a genius nor a sell-out, and in terms of the balance, I’m much stronger doing philosophy itself than debasing myself on the business side of academic work, so I didn't succeed. I didn't become a professor. But if it came down to a philosophical debate between her and me, where it was all about the depth of our ideas and the quality of our thinking or our writing, there would be no contest. I'd reveal that she's a phony. But the real world rarely features such ideal scenarios. What matters most is the business side. So again, by default I wiped the floor with the Thinking Christian in his comment sections, because over and over again he ran from the challenge. But who knows or cares about it except for me and maybe a few of my readers? I doubt there was any negative impact on his blog, so he still gets to flaunt his digital medallions for having a top blog, as if nothing happened.

      What I’m getting at is that the internet is hardly a meritocracy, and unfortunately the relative unpopularity of my blog is to be expected given the content of my worldview. I would indeed prefer to have a big following, not so much for egoistic purposes, but because I’ve gotten some of my best ideas when I’ve been challenged by a reader in the comments. Exploring philosophy in isolation has its advantages and disadvantages. Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris, for example, have the benefit of a powerful sounding board made up of their huge readership. On the downside, that sounding board inevitably becomes an echo chamber, the popularity goes to the writer’s head and so we have the cult of personality and the arrogance at the top, all of which are detrimental to the philosophical work itself.

      Anyway, I’ll keep plugging away as long as I think I have something interesting to say. And I’ll work on increasing my readership, but you should know that I’m a lousy marketer or businessman. I have an artistic, philosophical mindset which has a low tolerance for the opposite kind you need to sell a product.

      I wish you the best in philosophy, and thanks for your kind words.

    3. Thank you.

      I was not worried about your stopping completely from discouragement, however I also saw your January 31 satirical article, which had similar themes to this one, so I thought it might be a good time for me to say something. All the same, I’m glad to hear it.

      I don't plan on pursuing an academic position in Philosophy. As you've said here, its not clear the skills needed to get that sort of position are the same ones necessary for developing philosophically, and in any case I think philosophy is most needed in society, rather than the rarified world of academia. At the same time, I know people who have ended up in limbo or been rejected for tenure multiple times at different universities after staying at each one for a decade, only to be forced out regardless of their impact on students, and this even happens to people in fields such as Engineering. I am hoping to get a master´s in Social Work and use philosophy to directly affect people by promoting and facilitating more rigorous thinking about whatever they happen to be going through. Of course doing that opens up a whole other can of worms involving happiness, functionality, mental “health” and the professional pressure to merely spread feel-good ideology, etc., as you and others have written about, but it seems to me that it is still better to give people as much philosophy as they are ready for, than to hold back entirely because most people aren't ready to go all the way yet. For example, if I help someone figure out for themselves why their suicidal nihilism is incoherent, and the result is that that a few months later, much happier, they embrace Catholicism and Thomas Aquinas, well... Perhaps that's just the world we live in, and maybe in a few years they will be in a more stable place and ready for a little more (not that I have all the answers either, far from it). One can do worse, after all, than embracing Catholic philosophy and Thomas Aquinas, even if its also true one can do better.

    4. Regarding your experience with your fellow graduate student, as an aside, I've been wondering for quite a while now why Gender and Women's Studies (and similar) is considered a separate field from Feminist Philosophy. To the extent there is any difference that actually justifies Women's Studies falling under some other standards than those of rigorous philosophical inquiry, it seems to me that its highly unclear how those alternative standards could be anything other than less rigorous than those of philosophy. I suppose much is made of the supposed interdisciplinary basis of Women's Studies, but its hard for me to determine what those various disciplines are, and why research needs to be done in an interdisciplinary way, rather than just being done in separate fields which can later critique and interpret one another. If you want to double major in sociology and feminist philosophy, that seems potentially fruitful, but how can one base oneself in a kind of vague hodge podge of both, with a few other disciplines perhaps thrown in for good measure, without having an absolutely solid basis in all of them as separate disciplines first? I say this as someone who has actually gotten a lot out of reading feminist philosophers such as Wollstonecraft, Poulain de la Barre and Nussbaum. Perhaps there is some plausible reason to have fields like Gender and Women’s Studies independent from fields like Philosophy, Sociology or Economics which I haven’t thought of, but, to limit myself to a self-critical statement, I am at a loss.

      As you seem to suggest, it may be that there is a much bigger market out there for feel-good feminist ideology than for rigorous feminist philosophy or even for well-done feminist-influenced social science research. Oh well, I tend to think that no matter how subversive philosophy may be in relation to cherished ideas which turn out to be either delusions or at least not what they first appeared, nonetheless the darkness that comes from ignorance and service to pathological or vulgar ideologies and presuppositions is worse. One can waste one’s entire life chasing phantoms in such darkness, and doing so can cause great suffering. Vulgar ignorance can be bliss, but when it gets mixed with pathological ideologies (which might tend to happen when someone begins to question things like consumerism, but is either unexposed to anything better or unwilling to face the consequences of seriously questioning cherished ideas), those pathological ideologies can consume people, so that finally they are neither enlightened or happy (Dostoevsky’s book Demons/The Possessed is a great treatment of this).

      If I can keep myself out of some trouble, and maybe influence a few other people to do a little more critical thinking and live lives that cause the world to be a bit less ruled by blindness and confusion, that’s still a very worthwhile project, especially in relation to alternatives such as if I were to write only what people want to hear, with no regard for quality or the long term consequences. So with regard to this, The Thinking Christian might be more popular, but at the end of the day is just one more ideologue contributing to the lowering of standards, and his readers will likely soon move on to someone a bit more charismatic or flattering of their preconceived notions. One might say, very well, he has chosen his path and has received his reward, and that’s fine. If and when he or his readers want a little more to chew on, its important that there be an alternative, and philosophy is in large part about making sure that there is something better out there so that society retains the ability to achieve as high a level of rigor as they are capable and willing to embrace. However low the bar is, it can always go a bit lower, or a bit higher, and a few people will always jump much higher than the others and provide an example that others can choose to follow or not. At least, as near as I can tell.

    5. Sounds like a worthy use of philosophy. Have you considered adding existential therapy to your toolkit (link below)?

      Whether philosophy always helps a person can be argued both ways. Certainly, total, willful ignorance can be destructive, as in the case of Trumpism or even consumerism (the ignorance sustained by corporate propaganda, as in misleading ads). Plato said ignorance is always the problem, but he also said society needs noble lies. Nietzsche was even more elitist.

      As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. For example, philosophy can eventually undermine religious belief, and the question is whether there are always viable secular alternatives. Taking away a nonphilosophical person's religion is a little like taking candy from a baby. The crying baby grows up, but the adult who's lost his religion has nowhere left to go.

      I studied some feminist philosophy, before Women's Studies became a thing. (I was actually one of two males in a feminist philosophy class of around twenty students. The professor had some kind of emotional breakdown at some point and we got a substitute teacher for a couple of weeks.) I assume feminists think Women's Studies needs to be kept separate to prevent it from being taken over by the patriarchy. I don't know much about Women's Studies, but I suspect it's propped up now largely by political correctness.

      It's the same with Critical Theory departments. The philosophy department at my old university was analytic and naturalistic, and there was a separate faculty for postmodern philosophy, called the Center for Theory and Criticism or something like that. There are some valid points made in postmodern philosophy, but there's also a whole lot of bullshit in it.

      But it's also a business decision: much of the Humanities or the Arts serves as an extended child daycare center for millennials who don't want to grow up or go into the trades or get a real job (because many real jobs in North America are dead-end service jobs, manufacturing having gone elsewhere due to globalization). So the excess omegas want to get out of the family basement and enjoy at least the dream that they're doing something worthwhile by getting a degree that's often useless. As long as these young consumers have the resources to pay (credit cards or family money), colleges and universities will open bogus departments to sustain the dream.

      Again, social work certainly sounds like a valid and noble use of philosophy (of ethics, existentialism, or critical thinking, for example). I hope it all works out for you.

  2. I assume all of my readers are parakeets accidentally hitting the right keys to sound almost rational (like the 100 monkeys writing Shakespeare). I suppose the same thing could happen with payment...

    The idea of using AI to write books reminded me of the old Randy Newman song where he's singing about the woman he hired to help around his house and adds, "She wrote this song for me!"

    1. Hmm, you mean a servant wrote the song, according to the song? But this might get it backwards if we become the penniless, jobless servants and the machines become the masters. Yuval Harari and other pessimists talk about that dark potential of technological progress.

      My parakeet article may also get the timing wrong, as I pointed out in the above response to K. Digital fabrication may make it possible for us to produce our own material goods (as in Star Trek's universal replicators), and this may happen long before AIs are human enough to be artistically creative. Have a look at this link if you're interested: