Jennifer Egan on storytelling in a data-hooked world (Transcript)

The TED Interview
Jennifer Egan on storytelling in a data-hooked world
July 21, 2022

[00:00:00] Steven Johnson:
Welcome to the TED Interview. I'm Steven Johnson. If you've been following the news from the technology world, you might have noticed that the headlines have gotten a little, well, strange lately. I mean, one big tech company is convinced that in the next few years, we'll all be moving to some place called the Metaverse.

And just down the road from that tech company, another tech company is debating whether they've just created an AI that thinks and feels. And, also, people are making and losing vast fortunes by buying and selling digital images of bored apes. Now, these are exactly the kind of turbulent developments that we like to examine and understand here at the TED interview, usually by talking to scientists, or futurists, or tech critics who can guide us through these new worlds.

But there's another kind of guide that has always been an important resource for societies trying to make sense of sudden change: the storyteller. And today we have as our guest, one of the great storytellers of our time, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan. Egan is the author of six novels, including a visit from the Goon Squad, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. Her latest book, a sequel of sorts to Goon Squad, is The Candy House. It's a dazzling alternate history of our present moment. Weaving together threads about virtual reality, human memory, drug escapism, archetypal narrative structures, games, and much more.

We wanted to talk to Egan about the continued relevance of the novel in a world teeming with technological novelty and how she manages to write books that flirt with sci-fi futurism without falling into the usual dystopian tropes. A review of Candy House in the New York Times called it, quote, “A spectacular palace built out of rabbit holes.”

So get ready to dive down some of those rabbit holes over the next hour.


[00:02:19] Steven Johnson:
Jennifer Egan, welcome to the TED Interview.

[00:02:22] Jennifer Egan:
Thank you.

[00:02:23] Steven Johnson:
So much to talk about. First off, congratulations, uh, on the new book, The Candy House. It's interesting having a novelist on this show because I think the audience is divided into two groups of people: people who have read the novel, and all they want to do is talk about the characters and the plotlines and, and the formal inventiveness of, of this book in particular.

And then you have people who haven't read it yet, and so, discussing the novel is filled with spoiler alerts, uh, or it's just a world they haven't encountered yet. And I think the, the best way to do it, in a sense is to kind of talk around the novel. Talk about some of the issues it raises. It has a lot to say about technology and social media, and also to talk about your creative process.

I mean, there is a lot going on in this book. To me, um, you know, it, it's very hard to capture the full range of it, but you're in the middle of a book tour. You, you must have, uh, some kind of standard explanation of, of what this book is. Can you at least share that with our listeners?

[00:03:26] Jennifer Egan:
Sure. And I'm also, I may get specific about plot elements because I think, as you say, because this book has so many different worlds in it, I don't think it, it's possible to really spoil it exactly for a person who hasn't read it yet. So I, I think I'll just start by setting up the opening of it, which in a way is where it started for me, which is that a tech, a very successful tech icon who is extremely famous, is having a midlife crisis because he has no idea what he's going to do next, what his new idea is.

The idea that he's had is, I’m positing basically, social media. He's invented it. And he, but he feels like he's a failure because he can't find the next step. So because he's surrounded by people who just wanna please him, as I think famous people often are, he goes in disguise. Disguised as a graduate student to a Columbia University discussion group of academics.

And he is really just hoping for some sort of new idea to spark him. And he actually finds such an idea. And the idea is that of externalizing consciousness as a way of re-accessing one's own memories, for a start, and revisiting one's own past in a more complete way, from a present-day perspective. And part of what inspires him to invent this, it's not just what he hears in the academic discussion group in disguise, but a wish of his own to remember the details around a really important event for him and another character in the book, which is that after a night of partying in 1993, they stood next to the East River, all of them at NYU, students, and they talked about the future, and then two of them went, walked down the river together, went swimming, and one of them drowned.

So Bix was the last person to see these two before that happened, and he wants to remember that morning better than he does because, of course, our memories are very scant if you look at them closely. I mean, if you say, “I'm gonna remember a day,” how much do you remember about that day? A few little moments that you go over again and again.

So he wants all of it, and that is really the impetus for the invention, which I then explore from many, many angles as it impacts all kinds of people's lives. Often just in the sense of watching people use this machine to view their own consciousnesses or each other’s, which is another important facet of the machine, and that is, in a way, becomes both the more revolutionary aspect of the machine and also the more controversial aspect.

[00:06:17] Steven Johnson:
There's an interesting kind of doubling here, which is that the memory he is tracking down, this, this tragic event in the East River is, if the reader has actually read your earlier work, this is a scene that actually takes place in Goon Squad, and so Bix is searching for this memory, and if you're a regular Jennifer Egan reader, you yourself are remembering this thing that you read, you know, 10 years ago in a novel. What was the point at which you decided to build off of the world that was, that was so, you know, wonderfully captured in, in Goon Squad?

[00:06:54] Jennifer Egan:
You know, in a way I think that I never really stopped thinking about it, the chapter in which the drowning occurs—and you're exactly right, we, the readers of that book have actually witnessed this event. We certainly don't need to have done that or remember it to experience The Candy House, but that was one of the later chapters I wrote for Goon Squad, I think it was the second to last one, and it's such a huge event that it felt a little like just having this happen and then walking away from it didn't feel like quite enough.

You know, we lose the protagonist of that chapter in the course of, of the chapter, and so that was one of many things in Goon Squad that felt not exactly unresolved, but it felt a little cavalier to just leave it as is. I mean, the nature of these books is that we're inside a different consciousness in every chapter, and of course, each person is the center of our own cosmos, really.

We are the product of our past, our geography, our circumstances, our ethnicity, and so, it, it's inevitable that each one introduces a whole host of experiences and characters that could conceivably be explored. And the drowning was one of those cases. So the two people involved other than the person who drowns, namely Bix, and another man named Drew, whom we learn a lot more about in the course of The Candy House, they are very touched by this event, and I just felt right to take ownership of that and get in there and look at what the aftermath would be like.

[00:08:31] Steven Johnson:
You were such a formally inventive writer. Goon Squad famously has this extended PowerPoint sequence it, in the second half of it. And there are a number of amazing, almost magic tricks that you pull off in The Candy House.

But interestingly, the book you wrote between them, Manhattan Beach, is a fairly traditional, linear, historical work of fiction. But it, uh, I guess one of my questions to you is like, at what point in the process do you think about how to structure the stories you're gonna tell? Um, I, I, I've had a couple of books that I've written where I actually had the structure, you know, significantly in advance of the actual content of the book. There was, like, an architecture for the book that I had in mind, and it took me a couple of years to come up with the actual content to put inside of it. It, does that sometimes happen to you, or do you start with a series of characters and, and then figure out the right structure to present those characters in their lives through?

[00:09:33] Jennifer Egan:
It's a little bit of a combination. I often have a wishlist of things that I would like to try. So, for example, PowerPoint was on that list long before I was able to use it because it's actually really hard to write fiction that works in PowerPoint. I definitely had a wishlist in my mind as I worked on Candy House.

I hoped I could write something in the first person plural as we. I hoped I could have an epistolary chapter completely in the form of letters. I really wanted to use Twitter, uh, at 140 characters. I actually wrote that chapter much earlier, because of the kind of inadvertent poetry and the kind of, the serialized nature of reading a story on Twitter.

So there were certain things I knew I wanted to do, but that in and of itself doesn't lead to anything. My entry point, when I actually write fiction, oddly enough, is time and place. And I write my first drafts very improvisationally because I'm looking to get beyond what I can think of consciously. My conscious ideas are not good enough, frankly. They’re not original, so I've gotta get out from under those and get to something that surprises even me and what I have found, so far, knock wood, is that the, in the end, I'm usually able to imagine my way into a story, ultimately, that requires a form from my wishlist. But it takes a lot of trial and error. I have to find a story that can only be told in unusual format, so I'm looking to what I write to tell me how to write it.

[00:11:12] Steven Johnson:
It's so interesting hearing you talk about those first drafts where you're struggling to surprise yourself on some level. There's a, there's a great sequence in the, in the middle of Candy House where there's a character who works for a company called Sweet Spot Networks, and their job is to sit around diagramming, kind of archetypal plot points in, in narratives. Like, two of them that I jotted down were “Hero delivers come up to Perennial jerk”, “Funny Best Friend gets serious to talk sense into Protagonist”. And they, they convert them into little, little algorithms, little like mathematical equations.

They're called stock blocks, and what I thought—it was just very funny, like, but I, I, it occurred to me like the, are, are you battling stock blocks or trying to figure out a way to incorporate them into your work in some fashion? How much of the process of getting out of that first draft mode is either getting rid of the stock blocks in your prose or complexifying them?

[00:12:10] Jennifer Egan:
Well, I think that definitely getting rid of stock blocks in my prose is very important. Because you know, because I write in a fairly blind, intuitive way for the first drafts, I do many, many revisions, but there are for sure cliches in there. So that would be a stock block on the level of the sentence. In terms of the plot stock blocks that Chris Salazar is trying to diagram into one gigantic algebraic system, I have a pretty big aversion to those wherever I encounter them. I mean, if I feel them happening in my own work, I feel almost sick, honestly. I have, I, it feels almost like an allergy, so I don't find too many of those creeping in, and if I do, it's usually a sign that I've really gone off the track. Like there's just something not right.

And they, but they actually, I'm, I'm remembering now they really do occur. There were some big ones in Manhattan Beach when I was in the first draft that I wrote, and I had to just, you know, flush them all away. But I think in a way, the, the kind of improvisational first draft writing that I do is specifically an effort to get away from the kind of group think that, I think all of us are more likely to engage in on the surface.

And I will say that my, my inspiration for thinking about Chris Salazar doing this work was that I saw a movie—it was a huge smash hit a few years ago—and I remember sitting there agape because I, every single move in this movie and every line that people utter is a cliche. And I thought, “This is almost a work of experimental art.”

Now, that was certainly not the intention, but I thought, “I wanna try to write something in which these, these cliches have been made into mathematics, and someone is trying to use that mathematics to create works that are commercially successful.” Because the movie I was watching certainly was.

[00:14:11] Steven Johnson:
One question I had was, it's, it's very funny, as a lot of the book is, and uh, I was kind of curious are, do you find that you are funny on the first draft, or is the comedy something that takes a lot of iterations to get right? Because it, it feels so unforced and, and you know, laugh out loud at various points in the book.

[00:14:31] Jennifer Egan:
The comedy tends to happen spontaneously. I'm not a big jokester in real life. I actually am terrible at remembering jokes. I'm not someone who creates comedy at a dinner table. Believe me, I wish I were. What I think the comedy comes about is through the improvisation, because the nature of improv, at least when I watch dramatic improv, let's say—I’ve never done it—is finding a line of action and, and pushing into it.

Like you don't pull back. You just keep going. And if something feels alive, you push harder into it. If you, if I do that on the page, I find that it naturally leads to comedy. It leads to extremes, one of which is often comic, although there is often another side to it. And in fact, in the chapter we were just talking about, things take an absolutely different turn toward the end of the chapter, and Chris actually thinks to himself, “There has been a genre switch.”

So I'm looking to exploit every possibility about this situation I find myself in dramatically as I write, and so the ca—the comedy tends to happen pretty early or in revision, as I realize I haven't pushed hard enough. I, I wanna get to the comedy, generally.

[00:15:45] Steven Johnson:
Speaking about the genre shift. So one macro question I came out of reading this book, having read Goon Squad, is the overall structure of it. The, this kind of genre and, and there's maybe some other equivalents of books that have a, a little bit of the structure, but you really have developed it in, in these two novels in, in, in a really powerful way.

One of the reviews in The Times compared to a little bit to the feeling of navigating through social media, right? That you're, you know, you land on somebody's page, and that links to somebody else's page who's vaguely related to them, who you kind of know, and then you end up on somebody else's page. To me, I was thinking back to, you know, kinda the big triple-decker novels in the 19th century.

If you think about the number of characters that you meet over the course of, you know, Bleak House or, or Middlemarch, it’s probably comparable. There's, there's a big, you know, kind of sociological net that, that is thrown out in those books, but they're more linear. They generally follow a, you know, a straight timeline. You have a clearer sense of a central protagonist or a small group of protagonists, and so there's something different, even though you're, you're covering the same overall amount of people, there's just a different approach that you're taking in, in these books compared to those older, traditional forms.

You know, you could have written this in a traditional, linear way and figured out, you know, two or three central protagonists and then had a bunch of cast of characters. You didn't do that. What? Why?

[00:17:13] Jennifer Egan:
I think that because… I think it actually may be related to technology. I mean, it's, you know, it's interesting when people say it feels like moving through social media. That was very surprising to me when I wrote Goon Squad because I was barely on social media. But I think that in a way, it—social media is sort of a metaphor for the feeling I want people to have as they move through these books, which is really that we're moving in and out of consciousnesses. We're moving in and out of people's minds.

The thing that fiction can do that no other narrative art form does in the same way, in my opinion, is actually give us a sense of being inside another human being. So if we're looking at an image of that human, we are by definition, in exactly the opposite position. We are on the outside.

So what I and, and the 19th century novels absolutely give us that sense of interiority. We move in and out of people's minds all the time. And there's also often a narrator with a specific personality who, who weighs in and editorializes. I wanna have that same feeling of flexibility and motion and the ability to go inside people's minds, and then out of those minds and into the, the mind of the, of the other person, let's say. Somehow for me, that feeling is best achieved through fragmentation, through combining smaller pieces, then writing it straight through in a linear way.

And that may be because, because of technology and a kind of fragmentation that exists in our consumption of technology. One more thing I'll add is that in my mind what I'm thinking of is not the internet per se. With A Visit From The Goon Squad, I was thinking about record albums, and the way that smaller, that songs, which you know, smaller pieces of music combine in, let's say, a concept album.

Like we can use a contemporary example like Beyonce's Lemonade. Small pieces that sound different from each other combined to tell one big story. And with this one, I thought more about, like game playing and the way that, for example, with Dungeons and Dragons, you are moving among worlds, which are written often by hand on graph paper, worlds and scenes in which everything is different depending on where you are.

And essentially you're moving through portals in and out of imaginary worlds. And I imagined in The Candy House that we are moving through portals in and out of people's minds.


[00:20:08] Steven Johnson:
You talked about the power of the novel to allow a reader to enter the consciousness of another human being, which, which I agree is maybe its great power compared to all other forms of art. And in the book, you have a line near the end about, in a sense, the relationship between Bix’s technology, which is called Own Your Own Unconscious, this memory-storing and sharing device.

And a character observes near the end of the book that Own Your Own Unconscious posed an existential threat to fiction. And, and so there's a sense here in imagining this technology that it, it, it would be the one thing that could do what the novel has historically done incredibly well. This would take it to a new level when you actually are entering the, the, the mind and the experience of, of being another sentient human being in the world. Talk about that.

[00:21:03] Jennifer Egan:
Yeah. Well, I think that what, when I imagine this machine. It seems that it would make it so appealing, like I would love to review some of my memories, but it's this, this drive toward authenticity that I think all of us feel if we as, as modern people living in a largely mediated world. And the wish for authenticity is as old as the screen. And I've been thinking about it ever since. I read a book by Daniel Boorstin called The Image. All he's talking about is television, because there was no mass media.

[00:21:41] Steven Johnson:
Pseudo-events. That was his big phrase. Pseudo events. Right? These kind of like fake, fake events.

[00:21:46] Jennifer Egan:
Yeah, exactly. And what he talks about is that, the events that appear on television are fake. They are made for television, although they feel real, and he, he, he talks about things like press conferences, let's say. But the viewer can sense that fakery or that artificiality. And so it leads to a hunger for authenticity and a kind of the beginning of a kind of, um, you know, a little bit of an obsession with authenticity, but then, the media tries to satisfy that craving through ever greater feats of mediation that feel authentic, but in fact are not, which leaves the viewer still hungry.

And it's a cycle that I think can explain pretty much every media development I've seen up to the present moment. And right up to last night when, I was on the subway with my son and he suddenly took a picture of the two of us and I said, “Why are you doing that?” And he said, “It's this app,” and I'm so sorry, I've forgotten the name. And the idea is that, suddenly everyone who's on this app is told, “Snap a picture of yourself right now.” And they don't know when that will come. And they do. And the idea is it's totally authentic. There's no way to prepare, there's no way to, you know, mediate, or, or create the situation. You just boom, tell us where you are.

And I thought, “Oh my God, Daniel Boorstin.” Here we are. So I, I am interested in exploring this in all kinds of ways, and, and I do in the novel. Some of them, you know, really crazy. I mean, there's a guy who's so obsessed with authenticity that he takes to screaming in public to elicit authentic reactions, and there are all kinds of other moments where that idea comes up, but it's, it's really part and parcel of our media diet.

[00:23:40] Steven Johnson:
The screaming sequence, you, you could, if you write a third book in this in this series, I would take, you know, another three or four chapters. But it triggers genuine responses from people, initially, on the bus where they're in their own little worlds of their own little attitudes, according to him, kind of fake on some level, and, but when somebody starts screaming, there is a brief flash of authenticity that you get from the people around him. And it's just, it is, it is an incredible sequence. Did, where did that, where did that come from?

[00:24:10] Jennifer Egan:
You know that, that had a long gestation. I was at the theater once, and I, there was a friend sitting behind me who is very controlled in her reactions, like very, uh, presentable always, and, and kind of, um, someone who rarely has a moment of looking uncomfortable or caught by surprise.

And there was a moment when someone was trying to get past her as we were talking, and she had a look on her face that I had never seen before, but I found myself being curious about that moment and then as very often happens with me, I find myself thinking, “What if there were someone, what if I wrote about someone who wants to collect those moments?”

What if I wrote about someone who can't live without those moments when they see someone in a totally unguarded state? When I actually started writing about where this would go, you know, I quickly found myself in kind of extreme territory, because what happens if you wanna always see unmediated reactions? And you know, that can become a kind of compulsion unto itself, which is really what we see in Alfred.

I mean, the reason he starts screaming is that he decides that this is a way that he can elicit very extreme reactions without actually physically hurting anyone. You know, he's terrifying them or upsetting them or enraging them, but he’s not hurting them. So he sees it as a harmless way to basically create an environment where at one point he delightedly reflects as he's on the bus screaming his head off, that it’s, the, the faces around him look like the faces of fellow passengers on a plane heading directly into the sea. And he's elated.

[00:25:56] Steven Johnson:
I was once on a plane, and the person next to me was sleeping, and they had some kind of nightmare that caused them to scream at full throttle, like right next to me on, on a plane. And it was amazing. It was exactly that kind of response. Everyone around there was like, “There was no situation on a plane where someone is suddenly screaming at, at full volume that is not a terrible situation for all of us on this plane.”

The other thing I wanted to ask about, thinking about these technologies, you alluded earlier to one of the chapters: Black Box. I'm just curious about that experiment. Um, and how did it feel writing inside of social media, not about social media? And is that something you're interested in pursuing further writing outside of a print book kind of format?

[00:26:46] Jennifer Egan:
Well, the God I was serving was always the God of the printed page. I mean, Twitter was certainly part of the inspiration in that it was, I was looking for a story I could tell in 140-character utterances, and it was tweeted, but I didn't really know how it would work on Twitter. And in fact it, by those who were deeply into Twitter at that time, and I was not, all I had managed to accomplish was to get hacked by a vitamin salesperson and send vitamin ads out to my, you know, believe—

[00:27:19] Steven Johnson:
Or so you say.

[00:27:21] Jennifer Egan:
My believer followers and those that were still with me after that mess. But what I was told by people who were deeply into Twitter was that it, it actually wasn't that satisfying as a Twitter experience, for many reasons.
One was the tweets came once a minute, which was way too seldom. And for people who were, people who were following lots and lots of people on Twitter, there was too much in between those once-a-minute utterances for it to really make sense to them narratively.

So the way The New Yorker did it was an hour a night for eight nights, one tweet a minute. So I think as a Twitter experiment, it had some success, but aesthetically it was not totally successful. In a way for me, it was already a success because I had, in finding a story that could be told in those 140 character utterances I had, you know, I had sort of lurched into a piece of fiction that felt, for me, really alive and kind of exciting. And it was actually the first piece of The Candy House that I wrote.

[00:28:29] Steven Johnson:
I mean, I was thinking, and, and this is somewhat backed up by what you were saying about games and the inspiration for Candy House, uh, is that if there were an online version of it, the, the way to tell this kind of story online would to be a, a, a version of a treasure hunt like format where the story is actually kind of distributed across the web?

And there, you know, if, if you search, there's a kind of a fake website that tells one story and then there's a fake journal entry on another site and whatever, and you just kind of secretly plant all these things all around the internet and then let your audience kind of slowly unravel that, that kind of treasure hunt story.

That to me is, would be the logical, uh, kind of next step in the evolution of this format. But it would leave the novel behind on some level, so probably wouldn't make sense.

[00:29:19] Jennifer Egan:
And it also wouldn't do the job, in my opinion, because once again, we would be looking at pictures.

[00:29:24] Steven Johnson:

[00:29:24] Jennifer Egan:
And they would be trying to suggest inner life, but they would not be succeeding.

And it's interesting you, it's something you asked earlier. I didn't fully answer. I had a moment of thinking about, um, the connection between sort of where the internet and, and the novel start to intersect. When I, again and again, couldn't figure out why one of my sons wanted to watch streamers playing video games or, later, playing chess, and I thought like, this is, I, “It's bad enough that you wanna play video games.”

I realize I totally sound like a boomer, which I am, when I say that, but it's bad enough that you wanna spend so much time playing video games, but, really you wanna watch someone else playing video games? Like how bizarrely meta and time-wasting can you get? But then I started watching with him, and I suddenly got it.

I thought, “Oh, I see.” We are looking at the same thing the gamer is looking at, and we're hearing the gamer’s stream of consciousness. We are as close as you can get, looking at an image, to actually being inside someone's mind. The fact that it's totally performative is well hidden by the experience itself.

So I suddenly thought, “Oh, of course, this is trying to do what fiction does.” And you know, when you said, “Would fiction disappear?” You know, how is it that fiction is so threatened by the, you know, the quote-unquote machine of Own Your Unconscious? It's because it, I think what made me realize how powerful such a machine would be to actually take the place of fiction was that experience of watching streamers.

[00:31:05] Steven Johnson:
One of the things that I think has been a consistent theme of the response to Candy House that, that I share is that the book has an openness to the potential positive side of this technology. Does it, does, does it surprise you to hear that from readers and critics? Is that how you thought of it as you were writing it, or was that a kind of an unintended consequence?

[00:31:31] Jennifer Egan:
I think the, the, the unintended consequence is, whenever I hear anyone describe it as dystopian, because for me as a writer, dystopia is not interesting. I'm not excited by it. There's no invitation for me to write fiction that is dystopian.

So I am driven by curiosity and, and honestly delight in exploring the lives that I explore. And I would never have written about technology if all I could bring to it was judgment and fear, because again, it's not that that's not legitimate. And as a parent and a citizen, I do feel, you know, worry a, a lot of worry about technology.

But as a writer, I, what I bring to it is curiosity. How does it inter-interact with people's lives and what can I do with that that will be fun? That is the bottom line question that I'm always asking, “What can I do with that that will be fun?” When I see streaming or when my son tells me about an app.

When I finally learned what a blockchain was, I thought, “What can I do with that that will be fun?” Can I, can I use blockchain to write fiction? I'm still asking myself that question. That's my sensibility, and it, I hope there's a feeling of openness and joy and humor because I just feel like that is what I wanna do as a fiction writer.

And I'm a journalist too, so I can, if I wanna get out there and, and, you know, engage very directly with the culture around me and even offer up opinions, I have another realm to do that. For me, fiction is about confronting the mystery and really honoring the mystery and the complexity of human life and to do it in a way that is fun.

[00:33:20] Steven Johnson:
You alluded to the fact that the technology Bix invents involving memory-capturing and storing and sharing, um, is far from reality. And I, you know, went into the book reading it, thinking that as well, that this is, you know, we're, we're assuming this technology is even possible in, you know, in the, in the 2010s when a lot of this takes place, when obviously it's something that we may never be able to do.

Um, but it did occur to me kind of halfway through the book that there is an interesting analog, which I've been living in, in the world over the last few months from something that I've been writing, which is artificial intelligence right now, and particularly large language models like GPT-3. For listeners who don't know this, this is the, the, the kind of the branch of AI that enables remarkably sophisticated writing where you can give it prompts and it will actually write stories or answer questions.

And the parallel, I think, to what's happening with Own Your Own Unconscious is algorithms like GPT-3 are trained on the entire corpus of writing that human beings have on the internet over the last 30 or 40 years. And so, when it is composing a story or when it is answering a question about some fact in, in history, on some level, it's synthesizing the ideas and thoughts of, of billions of people that have been published, you know, online over the last few decades.

And so there's a hint there of, of what you're talking about. I, I, I don't know if you spent any time interacting with these language-based AIs. Have you thought about them in terms of your own work as a writer?

[00:35:03] Jennifer Egan:
No, I'm very interested in it. Um, and I have a few things to say about that. I had a conversation with Jaron Lanier recently, and, um, he's a kind of a fascinating thinker on all of these matters.

Um, and he talked about how it's become very hard for him to write on a computer because of all the suggestions that the pro—word, word processing programs he's using keep making for his language, that they're distracting. They’re not what he wants to say, and he feels like he's being corralled into very, uh, normative language where he may, he might have wanted to do something different.

That was really interesting to me, and I, I guess the question of how much it matters that a computer can do things and how much that really is gonna change our experience of doing them is really rich and fascinating. So when I hear about AI that can review all human utterances thus far, okay great. Does that mean it's gonna contribute meaningfully to, let’s say, the literary arts? I would be incredulous.

[00:36:13] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. There was a really interesting New Yorker article a few years ago by John Seabrook that was talking about kind of earlier versions of this GPT-3 large language model stuff and, and autocomplete what Jaron Lanier is talking about. And he tells this great story about writing an email to his son, and he writes the email.

At the end of the email, he starts the sentence that says, I'm, and the, the auto complete fills it out, says, “Proud of you” And he's like, “Yes. When was the last time I said I was proud of him? That’s, that's exactly what I wanna say.” And then he all of a sudden was like, “Wait, what just happened?” The AI just taught him to be a little bit more emotionally aware and sensitive based on, you know, scanning through millions of emails that people have typed in Gmail in the past.

And it actually briefly made him a better dad, arguably. But it was also a very, you know, uncanny kind of moment. And, and I think that's, we're just gonna hit a lot of those experiences going forward and trying to figure out how to navigate that I think is gonna be, you know, one of the big challenges in the next 10 years. And we, we'll see what it does to art.

[00:37:17] Jennifer Egan:
That's a wonderful anecdote. I mean, and to me, I, what I love about it is that's taking the best of machine learning and bringing it back into human life. You know, I, I, I have really no problem with that. Like, I think that's great. But I, I, I guess to me, you know, especially as someone who relies so heavily on my unconscious to come up with material that is original, I guess what I feel is that art begins where that kind of processing of preexisting utterances ends.

I think that in a way that processed version, those paths of least resistance creatively, are exactly what I find in myself if I don't write in an improvisational way, if I sit down and just think, “Oh, okay, what kind of story can I tell this way?” It's never a good idea. Like, for example, with PowerPoint. When I wanted to use that, my first thought was, “Okay, I wanna write fiction in PowerPoint. How am I gonna do that?” Guess the question is, you know, can language-based AI get out ahead of the language that it is processing? That's what I'm not so sure about.

[00:38:30] Steven Johnson:
Yeah, it’s a great, I mean, can it get outside of the stock blocks? Right? It, it, it probably will get very good. You can see it already, like when you ask us to tell stories, there is some pattern recognition there of basic, almost kind of fairy tale-like story structures.

But I, I wanna just zoom out one layer here as we get to the end of this amazing conversation, and that is something that we've kind of danced around a little bit, which is really the, the role of the novel in helping people make sense of technological change. Here, again, I, I kind of think back to the 19th-century tradition as well.

I mean, that was a big part of what Dickens was trying to do is make sense of the new reality of industrial lives. So much of what the novel was doing at that point is to say, “Okay, we're gonna make this really new experience kind of coherent to you and give you a way of turning it into an understandable kind of story.” And I'm curious, is that an important role for the novelist and society still?

[00:39:25] Jennifer Egan:
Well, to me, any work of art is an artifact of the dream life, if you will, of the cultural moment that creates it. And in the end, art is really all we have left with which to recreate his—human history. Art is what lasts, and fiction—which is relatively new, certainly newer than, say, the visual arts or sculpture—is, is a particularly narrative artifact of the collective dream life of the moment that makes it.

And the reason I say dream life is that it, in fiction, there's so much information compressed, but also there's a kind of, it's a symbolic text, and I think the metaphor really holds because, you know, all of us dream at night, and we create these rich, symbolic texts out of the everyday stuff of our lives, and sometimes they're very obvious, like, “I'm late and I can't get there,” or whatever.

But sometimes they're really hard to interpret and make us question what, what exactly we are thinking about. And to me, that is what fiction does for the cultural moment. And my, my writing process is all about just trying to let as much of the world around me into the work as I can. Because to me, that's where the relevance and the value really comes from.

And in terms of what, what role fiction performs, I think it, it can perform the role of being an artifact that is provoking and, well, it's hopefully entertaining and transporting, but also provoking in the way that a powerful dream can be and, and inviting us to ask questions about the moment that we occupy.

I think that the, we are more and more aware, as we become more and more data-obsessed as a culture, of the need for storytelling. I'm kind of fascinated by the degree to which everyone wants to create a story around everything, but I think that impulse is really reasonable because data, on its own, is nothing.

It's just facts. It's the interpretation of that data that is the crucial element, and that is the storytelling. We are drowning in data, but what, what part of it are we supposed to be looking at and what are we supposed to be making of it? And that paradox between the inundation of data and the, the, the interpretive need to actually make something of it was one of the things I was really thinking about actively as I worked on this book and the way in which data can describe human behavior in large numbers, but human beings ourselves remain extremely mysterious to ourselves and to each other.

And I feel like the, the job of the novel is to enter that mystery. And give us human life in all of its hilarity and complexity and mystery.

[00:42:31] Steven Johnson:
Mystery is a great place to, to end on. I think we, we have a question on the show that we ask all of our guests, um, whi—which is, uh, what is the mystery that's still out there, the kind of the unsolved problem in your field or just in society around you, um, that you're most intrigued to find the answer to?

[00:42:53] Jennifer Egan:
I think that the problem I would like to see solved is the problem of the internet prompting a cultural psychosis in which people cannot distinguish between reality and illusion.

You know, my brother was schizophrenic, and we were extremely close. He took his life in 2016 because a lifetime of living with psychosis was so exhausting and so difficult for him that he gave up; he ran out of energy. It’s terrifying and deeply concerning to see a psychosis that is overwhelming the inner lives of lots and lots of people who believe things that appear to be substantiated by fact.

That's the nature of psychosis. My brother heard voices in his head telling him that the things he believed were true, but, but, but things that actually are not true culturally. So the big lie, QAnon, all of that is really… I feel very sympathetic to the people who believe these things. They are receiving information that tells them that these things are true, and yet they are not. That's the definition of psychosis, and I don't know how we solve that.

[00:44:14] Steven Johnson:
Well, this has been a fascinating conversation. So many aspects of your work just really resonate with this moment and all the issues we're all wrestling with. And the work is also just incredibly entertaining, uh, and delightful and, and full of fun at the same time, which is a rare combination. So Jennifer, thank you so much for joining us today.

[00:44:33] Jennifer Egan:
Such a pleasure. Thank you.

[00:44:37] Steven Johnson:
The TED interview is part of the TED Audio Collective. The show is brought to you by TED and Transmitter Media. Sammy Case is our story editor, fact-Checking by Meerie Jesuthasan. Farrah Desgranges is our project manager. Gretta Cohn is our executive producer.

Special thanks to Michelle Quint and Anna Phelan. I'm your host, Steven Johnson. For more information on my other projects, including my latest book, Extra Life, you can follow me on Twitter at @stevenbjohnson or sign up for my Substack newsletter: Adjacent Possible.