Krista Kennedy “Textual Machinery: Authorial Agency…”

This essay, but one of many chapters of a writing program series at Syracuse University, was interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it taught me new words (bifurcation) and concepts (Turing Test). Secondly, I learned that there is a powerful existence in our midst, that of a bot. Bots apparently do a lot of typo and grammar work but go beyond that to often do work faster and just as accurately as a human.

Kennedy firmly addresses her question of authorship and agency and texts by bots in Wikipedia. She began by citing a 2007 essay by Carolyn Miller which looked at the ramifications/results of bots grading compositions written by (oh so very human) students. Miller concluded, Kennedy writes, that the concept of agency is quite “bifurcated and illusory” (303) and Kennedy’s builds upon MIller’s opinions by adding work presented by both legal scholars and rhetoricians to debate what it means to use bots to write and edit articles in Wikipedia. This is Kennedy’s big query: can a writing machine be considered an author legally or theoretically?

In rhetoric and writing, the Author (capital A) is considered the creator of something original, thus, the idea of originality is paramount. The bookend to this central idea of Author is that the composition must be the product of an individual mind. This is what was a given for many decades if not centuries. However, in our ever-increasingly collaborative world and networked environments, our “strictly postmodern stance also potentially brushes aside some central questions about authorial agency and responsibility” as Cheryl Geisler, Michael Leff, and Andrea Lunsford have asserted. Kennedy is very firm on her belief that because real people AND entities (such as bots) create texts, both should be treated as authors. To this I say hogwash. I understand the bots can automate texts, and I am a big fan of spellcheck, however, to call an automated bot an author as if it was human, well that is just a little too sci-fi for me.

Kennedy taught me another term I never heard before: textual curation. (304) She gives an example of encyclopedias which uniquely are made up of splicing info from different texts to create a different, new text. Rather than one author, the collective author has a different agency.

This brings me to Wikipedia. Kennedy takes her essay to a focused look at Wikipedia because it’s such a bold, open ethos and networked environment. However, this is exactly why so many complications have arisen regarding Wikipedia because it offers instant collaboration which Kennedy says results in “co-extant texts” (304) as well as related versions, discussions, all written by anonymous authors or authors with a pseudonym. Wikipedia also has to account for these “bot-written texts” (304) which are Wikpedia’s curators essentially. The most famous is RamBot  (created in 2002) which sounded to me like Rambo. RamBot was named after Wikipedia’s creator, Derek Ramsey. RamBot has been around since 2002, which surprised me since I wasn’t truly a digital internet user at that time. RamBot and those like it, have taken on tasks that only humans did in the past. I do not agree that bots should be attributed with human-like intelligence, capabilities, nor authority. I just can’t seem to get there mentally and see bots as equal to humans in judgment and mental capacity. Thus, I was happy to read that Wikipedia’s policy is to distinguish the human user who created the bot from the bot itself to avoid havoc and other blunders (305) which are the reason that Wikipedia has strict rules for bot editing speeds. Kennedy writes that as we keep delegating tasks to bots we have to treat them as authors. REALLY? She must have drunk the ‘krazy kool-aid” because I just don’t subscribe to this opinion. I go back to her idea about how authorship was traditionally something from an “individual mind.” (303) Even though she talks about how bots are products of their creator, she backpeddles in my mind a bit by saying that the program writer is “not necessarily the writer of the text that his program creates.” (305) Just as Miller stated, agency has been “attributed to AI programs” (305) but some may disagree that this applies to the issue of Wiki bots because bots work to serve agency, not vice-versa. (305) I agree that the bots are so commonplace that we must reconsider the reality of rhetorical agency versus the agent. (306) However, I disagree with her when she insists that bots ARE “intelligent agents, in however basic a way.” (306) It all comes down to the question of “bifurcation of agent and agency.” (306) Does the agency possess the bot or the other way around?

I enjoyed Kennedy’s example of legal precedent of authorship in referencing the case of a man who helped Spike Lee on his movie Malcolm X. I find it interesting as well as frustrating when dealing with legalese in such real life situations such as that which concerned Jefri Aalmuhammed. It makes you think, asking yourself what does it mean to author something? Influence is one thing, suggestion is another. My instinct says that Aalmuhammed has every right to ask for co-authorship credit because he helped review the script, made substantial revisions to that script, and aided the film’s authenticity regarding Islam and Malcolm X’s conversion. The Ninth Circuit Court rules on this case but said so much on a larger scale as to what the courts officially consider as authorship: simply put, co-authorship is a status that must inherently require “superintendence, or decision-making authority.” (307) Kennedy says this delineation means in a greater sense that her beloved “bifurcation of agency and agent” is in line with that which theoreticians argue. (307)

In conclusion, as a student myself, I found it interesting that she reminds us that we wouldn’t be inclined to claim a school owns a student’s writing merely for giving the motivation for that writing. Rather, we are increasingly aware and recognize as such, that writing is interactive, and as many suggest, a performance in that the writer moves from writer to audience to writer again, as is obvious in moving text such as Wikipedia. (308) Agency happens at that point of “kinetic energy” of these exchanges. (308) For her, Kennedy just flat out considers the Wikipedia “author” as a true curator of the new creature that is The Author. (308) I appreciate her thoughts and reasoning. I simply do not concur that robots, bots, or AI be considered human-like in cognition.

[Source read but not cited: https://lbanister.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/krista-kennedy-textual-machinery/]

 

Kennedy, Krista. “Textual Machinery: Authorial Agency and Bot-Written Texts in Wikipedia.” The Responsibilities of Rhetoric: Proceedings of the 2008 Rhetoric Society of America Conference. Eds. Michelle Smith & Barbara. Warnick: Waveland P, 2009. Retrieved from SURFACE: Writing Program Series at h4p://surface.syr.edu/wp/1/

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