Monday, November 22, 2004

The Storyteller "Satisfices"

An essay in the NYTimes about storytelling computer software.

The interesting part isn't what the computers are spitting out (though you should really take a look at it). What is important is the methodology -- the algorithms being used. In Daniel Akst's essay there is precious little attention to that, only the following enticing hint about the process of compromise that human writers inevitably use. Herbert Simon, one of the people involved in Brutus, uses the word "satisfice" to describe writerly choices conceived as "good enough" to work.

It was Simon's ideas - particularly his notion of "satisficing" - that first got me interested in fiction-writing machines. Though in theory a person shopping for new shoes could consider all the pairs on the planet, in fact, the cost is way too high - an entire life spent shoe-shopping. So in the real world we visit one or two stores, try on a few in our size and buy a pair.

Satisficing in this way - settling, or even sensing, what is good enough - is something novelists must do as well. We think of an idea and go with it because pausing to systematically consider every plot twist, character or phrase that might come next would lead nowhere.

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