Welcome to the Future, Part 1

by Lisa Norman

Welcome to the Future, Part 1

Story time

I learned to type on a manual typewriter. In my advanced typing class at a small private school, the teacher promised that anyone who finished all the lessons in the book could work one-on-one with her to learn how to use the school’s new computer. People often comment about how fast I type. That promise is why. I worked to get my speed up, and I finished every lesson in the book. I took the stack of completed work to the teacher and eagerly asked when I could start computer lessons. She looked me over and said, “That offer does not include you.”

Why? I’ve never known for sure, but I suspect it had to do with my family’s perceived status in the school. Looking back, there were probably other students whose parents had paid for that computer. I don’t know.

I went home and told my parents that I wanted to go to public school.

Shockingly, they said yes, probably because it would save them a fortune.

One condition: I wanted computer lessons.

Problem: even in Silicon Valley, most high schools didn’t have computers back then.

My parents searched and found a school that had one. We had to be a little sneaky and cross district lines, but the principal allowed it.

There were no official computer classes. If I wanted to learn computers, I would have to befriend Mr. Wilson, the chemistry teacher and the only one allowed to touch the computer.

Fine. I needed a science class anyway, so I signed up for chemistry.

Mr. Wilson was one of the best teachers in the United States. He even went to the White House to receive an award from the president. He was also terrifying and deliberately hard on students, especially mousy little girls who wanted him to take time after school to teach her computers! The Wilson didn’t waste time with anyone who didn’t really want to put their heart into learning.

Our first meeting went badly, ending with him telling me to get out and come back after doing some impossible task. I forget what it was, something like memorizing the chemistry book, probably.

After all the work to get into this school and into a class with this teacher, I found myself standing outside, wondering what had just happened.

No.

I’d put in too much work.

He was just a scary, mean man. I lived with one of those. I would just have to convince him I would not give up.

With a deep breath, I went back into the classroom. I walked up to his desk and told him I was willing to help after school or do whatever was needed to get those computer lessons, but that I’d gone through too much to get there and I would not accept a “no.”

His grimace slowly morphed into a not-so-nice smile. “Well, I could use a putz frau. You know what that is?”

“No.”

“It’s German for ‘low maid.’ I need someone to clean up around here. Someone to put grades into my computer gradebook.”

“I’ll do it.”

“It won’t be easy.”

“I’ll do it.”

Test tubes and technology

I washed a lot of lab equipment for those early lessons. He also made sure I learned chemistry. For two years, he taught me how to use a computer after school every day. I also learned that he was one of the kindest people you could imagine. He just didn’t want people to know.

I got very fast at data entry after I accidentally deleted his gradebook during one of my lessons.

Even back then, I was good at beta testing and breaking computers.

Mr. Wilson believed that to be the best in his career, he needed to know not only how things had always been done but also how things might change in the future.

One day he let me borrow a teacher training magazine that contained a fictional account of the classroom of the future and the role computers would play. I still remember that vision. We’re almost there.

While my college degree is in creative writing, I also have a minor in Anthropology and the equivalent of an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science minor. Why “equivalent?” Because my fancy Silicon Valley university would not offer that minor until the year after I graduated.

Why am I telling you this?

My life has been filled with technological change and upheaval, much like many of yours have been.

And we’re just entering another wave of change.

If we’re going to be at the top of our writing profession, we want to pay attention to trends and changes: both obvious ones and subtle ones.

In my next couple of posts, I’ll be talking about changes in our industry.

Let’s start with a big controversy in the art world right now. My goal is to leave you encouraged and hopeful.

Just like the music industry was ahead of writing in digital rights and downloads, the visual arts industry is ahead of us in artificial intelligence. We’re not far behind, though.

The rise of Artificial Intelligence

As I write this, the #1 Science Fiction Graphic Novel on Amazon was illustrated by an AI named Midjourney. I’ve met the author, Adam Rodriguez, in an online forum, and I’ve worked with Midjourney. (The featured image on this post was generated by the Midjourney AI*.)

The author created this graphic novel as an experiment. Don’t think this was easy. It wasn’t. But imagine an author sitting around dreaming of a graphic novel. Let’s say our author is fairly old school. They use words. It’s overwhelming to find an artist, communicate the vision, and then create a working partnership. Let’s not get into copyright and royalty splits. (Note: I’m NOT against authors and artists collaborating. I think it is necessary and valuable. My daughter is an artist. I support artists in any medium, whether more visual or more word-based.)

There’s also been a huge controversy about the artist who won an art competition at the Colorado State Fair using the same Midjourney AI.

Before you become too enraged, please note that the artist spent over 80 hours creating those winning images.

Can AI-generated art BE art?

I say that it can, because these are artists who use words to bring their vision to life. More gifted visual artists are also embellishing the AI’s initial offering with other digital and physical tools. They report AIs are helping them prototype and design new works faster than before and that their income is increasing because of this collaboration.

Let’s work through some stages in the history of art for a moment:

  • artists use paint brushes
  • artists use other tools like air brushes
  • artists use digital tools like Adobe Illustrator
  • artists use AI tools like Midjourney

Where can you separate and draw a line and say that this is no longer art?

When an artist spends 80 hours crafting the prompt to generate a stunning piece of art that captures feeling and emotion, how is that not art?

AIs like Midjourney aren’t putting artists out of business. They’re just making art more accessible to those of us not gifted in that area. Think the difference between taking a photo with your phone vs an old-school camera with all of the lenses and manual settings.

Artists aren’t going away, but many of them are beginning a very profitable relationship with their favorite AI.

But what does this have to do with story?

It applies in two ways: authors can use AI images to bring their words to life for their more visually inclined fans, and AI is coming to the area of the written word as well.

Adam Rodriguez is a writer. He used words to craft that graphic novel: both the words in the story and the words that created the images. It wasn’t easy. But the result is fascinating and getting the appreciation it is due.

I’ll be doing a future post about using an AI to generate words, but the short version is: don’t worry, the AI won’t be taking over your job as a writer. Much like using a word processor is easier than writing your novels by hand, the AI can make your first draft process easier. And much like using a word processor can be frustrating, don’t expect working with an AI to be a smooth process.

I spent about 2 hours arguing with Midjourney to get the featured image for this post.

*Note: when using an AI, just like working with a human collaborator, check the licensing and copyrights. I’m not entirely happy with Midjourney’s rights yet, but if you are on a paid version of the program (which I am), you own the rights to the images you create. Crediting Midjourney is still required. The paid version allows you commercial ownership of what you create. So yes, that means that I own the featured image at the top of this post. No one else may use it without my permission. Some people believe AI generated art is public domain. It is not.

What do you think? Would you ever consider collaborating with an AI?

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About Lisa

head shot of smiling Lisa Norman

Lisa Norman’s passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she’s not playing with her d

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