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date: 09 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

Natural language generation (NLG) refers to the process in which computers produce output in readable human languages (e.g., English, French). Despite sounding as though they are contained within the realm of science fiction, computer-generated texts actually abound; business performance reports are generated by NLG systems, as are tweets and even works of longform prose. Yet many are altogether unaware of the increasing prevalence of computer-generated texts. Moreover, there has been limited scholarly consideration of the social and literary implications of NLG from a humanities perspective, despite NLG systems being in development for more than half a century. This article serves as one such consideration.

Human-written and computer-generated texts represent markedly different approaches to text production that necessitate distinct approaches to textual interpretation. Characterized by production processes and labor economies that at times seem inconsistent with those of print culture, computer-generated texts bring conventional understandings of the author-reader relationship into question. But who—or what—is the author of the computer-generated text?

This article begins with an introduction to NLG as it has been applied to the production of public-facing textual output. NLG’s unique potential for textual personalization is observed. The article then moves toward a consideration of authorship as the concept may be applied to computer-generated texts, citing historical and current legal discussions, as well as various interdisciplinary analyses of authorial attribution. This article suggests a semantic shift from considering NLG systems as tools to considering them as social agents in themselves: not to obsolesce human writers, but to recognize the particular contributions of NLG systems to the current socio-literary landscape. As this article shows, texts are regarded as fundamentally human artifacts. A computer-generated text is no less a human artifact than a human-written text, but its unconventional manifestation of humanity prompts calculated contemplation of what authorship means in an increasingly digital age.

Keywords: authorship, digital culture, digital humanities, electronic literature, natural language generation, reading, reader response

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