Bashing the romantic notion of the artist against the computational power of an algorithm and you get, if nothing else, amusing (and likely short-lived) internet memes. You may have heard of the “I write like” thing that Dmitry Chestnykh, a programmer in Montenegro, put together: basically, you copy and past into a window some chunks of your or someone else’s prose and it tells you (using code developed for detecting spam) which famous writer you “write like” (Dan Brown, in my case). For fun, I plugged some Nigerian 419 spam emails and discovered that while most write like David Foster Wallace, “MISS STEPHANIE UJU” writes like Shakespeare). It’s received sufficient notoriety in the last few days to spark some media attention and even some backlash (originally, it would tell you which of thirty-seven white male authors and three white female authors you wrote like; apparently the canon has been opened up a bit in response).
Having randomly also just come across digital artist Jason Huff’s “AutoSummarize” project, however, an experiment presented itself. Huff took “the top 100 most downloaded copyright free books” and used Microsoft Word 2008’s AutoSummarize function to summarize them, in their entirety, into ten sentence versions (“Word has examined the document and picked the sentences most relevant to the main theme”). The result is sort of wonderful. Here, for example, is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain
“All right. “All right. “Why, Jim?”
“Blamed if I would, Jim.”
“WHAT raft, Jim?”
And I’m satisfied. That makes me happy. But that gave me an idea: plug that in to the “Write like” program and see who it “writes like.” And guess what? It writes like Mark Twain!