University of Stuttgart Digital Workshop
16–17 December 2021
Confirmed Keynote Address: Dr. James Smithies, Director of King’s Digital Lab, King’s College London
Research on ‘intelligent systems’ broadly impacts the everyday lives of citizens worldwide, from self-driving cars, facial recognition, and ‘intelligent’ robots, to algorithms that create personalized advertisements that influence consumer choice. The societal, political, cultural, and ethical impacts of advances in this field have become matters of concern – and have also shaped literary and cultural production. Especially in recent years, literary texts that explore various aspects of intelligent systems have been thriving: novels such as Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me (2019), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun (2021), and Mark Wheaton’s Emily Eternal (2019) have drawn public interest and have put a new focus on the ‘knowledge of literature’ in that these narratives not only reflect upon but often also engage in, re-creating (and advancing) intelligent systems on the level of the story world. In effect, literary texts are both shaped by and actively shaping their cultural contexts of production and reception. With regard to the impact of various agents and environments on the design of a narrative – the text properties considered typical for a particular literary genre, as well as the robustness of specific genres due to their ability to adapt to changing requirements across different times and cultures – questions arise to what extent literature (or specific text types) can also be regarded as intelligent systems.
Needless to stress, literature and culture are not machines, and thus cannot be conceptualised as intelligent systems in the narrow sense of the term. Nor are they genuinely autonomous, in that they cannot sense their environments like ‘natural intelligent systems,’ such as bacteria and cells, are able to, since literary texts require one (or several) agent(s) to come into being. And yet, they share some key features with what has come to be known as intelligent systems: a) literary texts are highly dynamic and adaptive to changing historical and cultural contexts in their ability to productively interacting with complex environments; b) further, they are integrative, since they, in the words of Virginia Woolf, have “devoured so many forms” (1927, 224) and trends, and thereby drive the development of (new) genres; c) in addition, they build up a knowledge base, which helps to distinguish forms or developments of fiction, performance, or lyric within specific genres; and d) they include a certain degree of self-reflexivity, which comes to the fore, for instance, in metafictional elements or language poetry.