Artificial Intelligence

Outside the Box: Can Shakespeare Compete in the Economy of Attention?

Our weekly feature “Outside the Box,” allows us to toss impertinent questions at ChatGPT as we seek to better understand not only how AI “reasons,” but also what its artificial reasoning reveals about our own culture. This week we ask ChatGPT to debate Sam Bankman Fried on the reputation of Shakespeare.
William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare wax figures in Madame Tussauds museum in Berlin, Germany – 20/04/2019 © Massimo Todaro /

October 23, 2023 02:17 EDT

Richard Hanania is a gifted writer and thinker with a powerful ego, clearly bordering on narcissism. He has built a reputation out of expressing intelligently argued provocative, tendentious and divisive views on social and political issues. 

Good contemporary journalism should thrive on the three R’s: research, rhetoric and reasoning. Hanania has real talent for the first two. He’s far less solid on the third. Zak Cheney-Rice in New York Magazine’s Intelligencer describes him as “an intellectual muse of the Silicon Valley right” with a strong though carefully disguised tinge of racism. His subtlety is such that his racist tendency can even be directed towards white men, or at least one white Englishman from a remote past.

In a piece called “Shakespeare is Fake,” Hanania approves of Sam Bankman Fried’s dismissive assessment of Shakespeare’s importance as a writer. As recounted in Michael Lewis’s new biography of SBF, the discredited crypto king developed this argument to convince us Shakespeare is hardly worth paying attention to as a writer:

“About half of the people born since 1600 have been born in the past 100 years, but it gets much worse than that.  When Shakespeare wrote, almost all Europeans were busy farming, and very few people attended university; few people were even literate–probably as low as about ten million people.  By contrast there are now upwards of a billion literate people in the Western sphere.  What are the odds that the greatest writer would have been born in 1564? The Bayesian priors aren’t very favorable.”

This kind of reasoning, based on the pseudo-logic of calculated probability, may throw significant light on how SBF also managed to lose track of eight billion dollars of customer assets. But Hanania not only agrees with SBF’s disdain for Shakespeare, he makes the claim – as any narcissist might – that “I could copy Shakespeare’s style and produce something just as appealing.” 

Really? The value of Shakespeare is that his writing is “appealing?” This isn’t the logic of mathematics, Bayesian probability or Silicon Valley algorithmic thinking. This is the logic of two narcissists whose minds have been captured and transformed by the culture of the consumer society and the entertainment industry.

ChatGPT weighs in

I wondered what ChatGPT’s might have to say and asked this question: Why might one consider Sam Bankman Fried’s reasoning about Shakespeare faulty? Our AI friend offered five objections to SBF’s logic. Here they are in full

  1. Misunderstanding Bayesian Statistics: Bankman Fried invokes Bayesian priors to make his argument. However, Bayesian reasoning typically requires not just considering the prior probabilities (the odds of Shakespeare being the greatest writer given the historical context), but also incorporating new evidence or data. Simply relying on historical demographics to conclude that Shakespeare is not the greatest writer oversimplifies the Bayesian approach.
  2. Oversimplification of Historical Context: Bankman Fried oversimplifies the historical context in which Shakespeare lived. While it’s true that fewer people were literate and attending university during Shakespeare’s time, it doesn’t automatically negate his contributions to literature. Shakespeare’s work remains significant because it transcended the limitations of his era and continues to be appreciated by a wide audience.
  3. Neglecting the Timeless Nature of Art: Art, including literature, is not purely a product of the time in which it was created. Great works of literature often have a timeless quality, and their value can be appreciated by people from different eras and backgrounds. Shakespeare’s writings have continued to resonate with people over centuries, which is a testament to their enduring quality.
  4. Subjective Nature of “Greatness”: Determining who the greatest writer is can be highly subjective. Different people have different criteria for assessing greatness in literature. Shakespeare’s impact on the English language, his exploration of complex human emotions, and the universal themes in his works are factors that contribute to his recognition as a great writer.
  5. Ignoring the Influence of Shakespeare’s Work: Shakespeare’s influence on the development of English literature and drama is immense. Many subsequent writers and artists have been inspired by his works, and they continue to be studied and adapted. This influence is an important factor when assessing his place in the literary canon.

Hanania could have saved time and better structured his argument in defense of SBF simply by asking ChatGPT the same question. Instead he focuses on ChatGPT’s fourth point: the subjective nature of greatness. Citing SBF, he asserts, “that’s what we should be responding to, and his argument here is irrefutable.” He then adds his own grain of salt in the form of “additional factors SBF doesn’t mention that argue against Shakespeare’s intrinsic greatness.”

“People have a lot more leisure time now, so many more individuals have the option of trying to write something and seeing if they’re good at it. Moderns can flush the toilet instead of having to go empty their chamber pots. There’s also the Flynn Effect; we’re simply much smarter than people from the sixteenth century. Finally, Shakespeare had a lot less previous culture to draw upon..

Hanania even fantasizes about what Shakespeare would be doing today: “maybe he’d write Hollywood scripts instead of plays and sonnets.” Other than that, this all purely and exclusively quantitative reasoning. It finds its place in the consumer society’s value system, which elevates the criterion of being “appealing” to the summit of virtues. Has Hanania actually read Hamlet, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Othello, Measure for Measure or The Tempest? Does he seriously think that each of those plays was the product of a style that he claims he could copy?

To prove his point about Shakespeare’s superficiality he offers what he calls, narcissistically, “the Hanania v. Shakespeare experiment,” which he seriously proposes as an object of academic research. He explains how he would conduct the experiment. 

“Have a halfway competent writer study his style. Give that person a little time, and let them write a ‘Shakespeare like’ sonnet. Find some smart readers who aren’t familiar with all of Shakespeare’s work and give them either fake Shakespeare or real Shakespeare to read. I’m sure that our imposter could produce something that ends up rated just as good, and that people’s judgments would depend more on whether they were told something was by Shakespeare than if it actually was.”

Literature and music

Clearly, for Hanania, the “plays are not the thing.” Shakespeare, to his mind, is not a dramatist but a sonneteer. If we were to transpose this comparative exercise to the world of music, we might ask someone to listen to a marvelous Bach melody”, such as “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring by Bach” and then compare it with George Gershwin’s “Summertime” to determine which composer was the greatest. Both “tunes” are wonderful and both composers are among my personal favorites in their genres, but Gershwin, however appealing his music, simply cannot be compared to Bach. The scale of their ambition is different. Gershwin wrote a lot of appealing songs but also composed some major orchestral works and one extraordinary opera, Porgy and Bess. Unlike Bach, he lived in a culture in which “appealing” was rapidly becoming the supreme virtue in the arts. But the culture of Gershwin’s time, in the first half of the 20th century, still retained a belief in values other than just being appealing. 

The cultural traditions of Shakespeare and Bach, a century apart, were both closely linked to rapidly evolving intellectual, scientific and spiritual traditions. Despite the growing influence of commercial culture that hadn’t quite yet established its hegemony, the same is true of Gershwin. With today’s consumer culture that has given us Kanye West, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, we live in a different world. 

Musicians as diverse as Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane shared one thing in common. All were conscious of their complex relationship with multiple traditions while simultaneously being aware of what people might consider “appealing.” Today we live in the “economy of attention” defined as dominated by “the logic of the mass media in contemporary social life, focusing on celebrity as the key manifestation of the accumulation of attention capital.”

Shakespeare was a minor celebrity in his time. As a theatrical producer, he understood the nature of “appeal.” But he also belonged to a culture that found other things besides celebrity and its financial reward appealing. Today, those other forms of appeal — intellectual, scientific and spiritual — cannot compete with the commercial and financial interest that defines and fundamentally corrupts nearly all decision-making in today’s economy.

Who’s right: AI or Richard Hanania?

ChatGPT’s response to SBF was far better than Hanania’s but remains fatally superficial itself. In making its point about “the oversimplification of historical context,” it also fails to recognize the concrete cultural reality of history. It takes as its unique criterion the “appeal” of Shakespeare over time. Shakespeare is great not because he remained popular over time, but because it was possible to produce challenging works at a time when a lot of great thinkers and artists were engaged in a vast multicultural, multilinguistic dialogue and literally “believed” in what they were producing, rather than just calculating what might be appealing enough to sell.

The lesson of the day concerning AI is this: Don’t expect it to delve any deeper into historical issues than the contemporary techno culture it belongs to.

And finally, let’s attempt to answer the question in the title of this article. Yes, paradoxically, Shakespeare has successfully competed. His work is produced far more often than any other author today. ChatGPT makes this clear: “There are many talented contemporary playwrights whose works are still produced today, but none have surpassed the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays.”

If SBF and Hanania really believe in statistics and Bayesian probability, why haven’t they considered that obvious statistic and the probability associated with it? Sadly, narcissists often miss the obvious. 

*[Artificial Intelligence is rapidly becoming a feature of everyone’s daily life. We unconsciously perceive it either as a friend or foe, a helper or destroyer. At Fair Observer, we see it as a tool of creativity, capable of revealing the complex relationship between humans and machines.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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