Dennis Yi Tenen Ø about books notes projects publications service talks teaching

Q & A Draft for Columbia News

How did this book come about?

My research often begins with naive questions about my immediate working environment. How do our phones or email programs “learn” to complete our sentences so well, I wondered, when those features came out. That sense of wonder took me down the rabbit hole of machine-assisted composition and the many related tools that make it possible.

So do you think all the worry about AI “taking over the world?” is overblown?

The term AI is often used as a synonym for technology in general. Allow me to paraphrase then, do I worry about technology taking over the world? Not really and all the time. Humans have walked hand in hand with technology for millennia. Artifice defines human intelligence. It also constantly poses challenges to our well-being.

What do you think the future of AI will be?

If we look at the history of authorship and text generation, a subset of this vague AI assemblage, you see a clear trend toward intimacy. By this I mean that years ago, finding the right word or fact would easily take days. They were literally far away! A visit to the archive could involve a trip around the world. The Gutenberg press has placed an encyclopedia in every home, within a hand’s reach. The search engine brought it to our fingertips, ever closer to the eye. Quicker response can only involve more direct communication, by which information systems would be entwined with the human body biologically. Hold the phone in your palm, inches away from your face, and think how much closer thought could get to that screen—a neuron’s pulse away from the word.

What books have you read lately that you would recommend, and why. What’s next on your reading list?

On my reading desk right now are: Doormen by Columbia’s own Peter Bearman and Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer by Loïc Wacquant. Both present lucid ethnographies of everyday life. I’m reading heaps of new material in preparation for a new class in the fall on conspiracy theory, rumor, and disinformation. Related to that I am reading everything from folk tales to Zora Neal Hurston’s Mules and Men, various collections of urban myths, all the way to the sociology of computational propaganda.

What are you teaching this semester?

Contemporary Civilization as always, alongside Literature in the Age of AI. Conspiracy Theory and possibly a class on self-help literature are next.

Which three academics/scholars, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party, and why?

That’s so hard! But since Hurston’s name came up, I often imagine her, Franz Boas, and John Dewey out for pizza perhaps? I’d love to be invited.

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