“Every day we generate huge quantities of data, just waiting to be woven into stories”: writer Antoine Bello on the digital revolution

The digital revolution is transforming whole swathes of the economy. And it’s leading to profound social change. To explore these changes in more detail, OVH wants to hear from a diverse range of individuals. Writer Antoine Bello kicks off this new series, which presents different perspectives to help us better understand the complex changes to come.

Portrait photo of Antoine Bello by Francesca Mantovani.

Much is said about the effects of the digital revolution on companies, which have been disrupted by innovations in technology over the past two decades. Less attention is paid to how the internet has changed the work of those in creative fields, and writers in particular. Do they use the web to find inspiration? In addition to being a fervent supporter of Wikipedia, which he uses extensively during research, writer Antoine Bello is fascinated by the development of artificial intelligence. He explores this subject creatively in his penultimate book, Ada (Gallimard, 2016). The story follows a police officer tracking down an AI machine programmed to write romance novels after it escapes from a lab in Silicon Valley. It is a novel that reflects on literary creation as much as on the technologies that humans develop for their own benefit, which sometimes end up going wrong. Read this interview to find out more.

What has the internet changed for writers?

Antoine Bello: The answer depends a great deal, I think, on the literary genre. For writers of autobiographical fiction, the internet is not a great help. When your novel is about yourself, you usually have all the knowledge you need to write it. In my case, I like to write about broader subject matters, combining history, geopolitics and sometimes plots with a scientific edge. I’m interested in these subjects, but I’m no expert on them. So I carry out a lot of research. For this I use the internet, but not exclusively; I still read a lot of books. The internet gives you access to an incredible mass of knowledge without even leaving home. This has utterly transformed the work of the writer. I was able to write a book like The Falsifiers in just one year. The same book, ten or twenty years earlier, would probably have taken me two or three times longer to write, just because of the research it entailed. And I would have spent most of my time in libraries.

How does the internet feed your imagination?

Antoine Bello: The falsification of reality is at the heart of the Falsifiers trilogy. But it is in my other books too. From a literary point of view, I’m interested in deception, falsification, questioning the line between what is real and what is merely realistic. People often ask me how I go about imagining a falsification. I start by doing research on the period in which the action is set. I look through the significant events that happened during the period in question, listed on Wikipedia month by month. Suddenly, among all the political, cultural and meteorological events, and all the rest, the death of a singer catches my eye. I click through to the article, and find out that he died in mysterious circumstances. Then I’m off, surfing from link to link. I read the album list, the song lyrics. And I discover that a year before he died, he wrote a couplet that now seems completely prophetic. I have a strong imagination, so the ideas for building a falsification or, in other words, inventing a story inspired by reality, come to me quite easily. I think I would be incapable of writing stories like this if I didn’t have such a rich pool of information so readily available, where you can go from discovery to discovery like drawing on the string of a ball of wool.

It is quite an anachronistic way of using the internet that you describe...

Antoine Bello: Right. As a writer, the way I use the internet has not changed much for ten or twenty years. The entries on Wikipedia are more numerous and more dense, but I’m happy to simply read the texts and click on the hyperlinks to explore. Occasionally I watch a video, to get a feeling, for example, for a country I have never visited. But I quickly stop watching and let my imagination do the work so I don’t get stuck on the images I have seen. I use social media very little, it’s a waste of concentration. And when I can’t find any information at all on a subject, I make it up!

Sliv, the central character in the Falsifiers trilogy, rewrites historical events. His work, backed up by newly created fake sources, is intended to alter history. When you wrote the first book, published in 2007, were you already talking about the unexpected phenomenon of fake news and our transition to a post-truth era?

Antoine Bello: Honestly, I wasn’t aware of that when I was writing. For me, The Falsifiers is above all a coming-of-age story. It is the story of a young man who is wondering what to do with his life. A recent geography graduate, he is hired by a secret organization to do a job that is terribly exciting. But he doesn’t know its purpose. The question he asks himself is a question all young people could ask: how long can you work for an employer when you don’t know their motivations?

In The Falsifiers, critics saw a reflection on journalism and the implicit question: “Is it dangerous, in a democracy, to say things that are not true, even when it is for a good cause?”

That was when I became aware of the scope of my book, and I played on it in the second volume, The Pathfinders. I got really interested in the concept of storytelling, in what makes us believe a story or not.

A Franco-American writer and entrepreneur, Antoine Bello is the author of a trilogy that started in 2007 with The Falsifiers. It was followed by The Pathfinders (Prix France Culture - Télérama) in 2009 and ended with The Showrunners in 2015. The books tell the story of Sliv Dartunghuver, an Icelandic geography graduate who gets a job as a writer for a secret international organization: the Consortium for the Falsification of Reality. A coming-of-age story combined with a reflection on the construction of history and the power of the media. Antoine Bello’s latest novel was published by Gallimard in France in 2017: The man who flew away (L’homme qui s’envola).

A fervent supporter of Wikipedia, which he uses extensively during research, Antoine Bello donated all his royalties to the Wikimedia Foundation between 2014 and 2015. He recently provided further financial support, offering to double users’ donations with the following message (in French): “At a time when social media is insidiously comforting us in our beliefs, [Wikipedia] is a site with content that reflects general opinion, with due regard to all sensitivities: Wikipedia.”

In 2014 and 2015 you donated your royalties to the Wikimedia Foundation in support of Wikipedia, the open encyclopedia. Why did you do this?

Antoine Bello: In just 15 years, Wikipedia has managed to generate a collection of organized information that is bigger than all the information humanity produced up until the end of the 18th century. It is an admirable project in the service of human knowledge that transcends all divides (geographical, religious) and has succeeded in replacing both Microsoft’s encyclopedia project (Encarta) and Google’s quickly forgotten Knol, launched in 2007.

I regularly meet with the Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia is committed to permanent improvement. It is getting easier to contribute and the number of articles is increasing, as is the number of languages, the diversity of contributors and user satisfaction. On top of that, complementary projects are developing like Wikiquote (for quotes), Wiktionary (a dictionary) and Wikidata, which allows data silos to be stored for use by researchers or, for example, any internet user wanting to find out about climate changes over the last 100 years for themselves. This is making it possible to open up a dispassionate debate on global warming.

I see Wikipedia as a universal public service. And because I’m a frequent user, it seemed natural to make a contribution proportional to my resources. Perhaps everyone should have this idea, when it comes to their use of Wikipedia and the need to contribute to the project.

Today, Wikipedia is well known and widely used. Why is it still necessary to support the project?

Antoine Bello: On a personal level, I don’t contribute much. I correct mistakes and rewrite clunky sentences because I can’t help myself. But it is unbelievable what the tens of thousands of contributors around the world do. Look at the “Discussion” tab to see the work being done on millions of existing pages. Look at the quality and richness of the debates. All this work is voluntary. In a world where everything is monetized, this selflessness is admirable.

We have to support Wikipedia, not to pay the contributors but to keep this wonderful project going. You have to remember, Wikipedia doesn’t monetize traffic, doesn’t store any records and doesn’t have advertisements. This means Wikipedia survives on donations from companies and individuals. The funds are used to pay staff members, as well as for servers and bandwidth. And lawyers. Wikipedia’s ambition is to offer universal access to human knowledge, but today around 20% of humanity does not have access to this resource. Some governments, like in China or Turkey, see the Wikipedia model as an unacceptable threat to their hold on power. Contributors are prosecuted for writing “defamatory” texts.

It is difficult for many of us to understand, but there are places in the world where Wikipedia is seen as subversive. So funds are needed to defend this project wherever it is under threat.

And also because Wikipedia is an antidote to misinformation?

Antoine Bello: When I falsify reality in my books, I know that some of my readers will use Wikipedia to check whether certain facts are true, to distinguish fact from fiction. Shouldn’t we all have this attitude whenever we are given information? Wikipedia is an interesting model for the construction of truth, through its system of open contribution, collaborative editing, transparent debates and multiple sources, as well as its focus on quality. This system succeeds in attaining a certain balance, even on controversial topics. Facts outweigh opinions, and the reader is encouraged to use critical judgment.

Speaking of critical judgment, what is your take on the current debate on artificial intelligence?

Antoine Bello: My first encounter with this topic was as a business owner. In the nineties I co-founded Ubiqus, a company specialized in taking minutes at meetings, and I was surrounded by people telling me that it was a dead-end business, that technology would soon do the work instead of people. The same happened when we extended our range of services to include translation. At every seminar, we would talk about this “threat”. It is true that technology is developing fast. But the end point is always moving further away. The results attained by machines are still not good enough. Especially because Ubiqus provides intelligent summaries rather than word-for-word transcriptions. I’ve since sold the company, and I must say that huge progress has been made in voice recognition and machine translation. Quantum leaps!

Today I am more of an observer of the debate on artificial intelligence. It is striking how everyone sees it from their own angle. Engineers have a pretty cold and mathematical view of technology. Marketing people are announcing a revolution and better tomorrows, to the extent that they promote some things as AI when they are not. Politicians make a fuss about the threat to certain jobs. And journalists, who want to be read, are either alarmist or, at the other end of the spectrum, sell us fantastic promises like the idea that AI will relieve humans of all sorts of tasks and lead to a leisure society. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. AI is neither good nor bad, it is what we do with it, what we will do with it. Moral stances frighten me. The truth is probably to be found in a pragmatic approach: let’s deal with the problems, one after the other.

But should we be worried?

Antoine Bello: There is a schizophrenic aspect to the debate. Take Elon Musk. As part of one of his many projects, Neuralink, he wants to equip the human brain with digital implants to improve our memory, download our thoughts (or other people’s) and even let us interact with electronic devices without the need for traditional interfaces. And yet the same person recently expressed his fears publicly that AI could represent a threat to our civilization, taking power and not wanting to give it back.

With AI, like machines in the last century, we want all of the good and none of the bad. Let’s stop frightening ourselves: until now, when technical innovations have appeared we have always managed to find the balance between good and bad. This revolution is not so different from the others. All technological revolutions have had their pioneers, their evangelists, their detractors. Every time we have survived.

You write, in Ada: “Soon there will be only stories. Every day we generate huge quantities of data, just waiting to be woven into stories. You’ll see, soon the world will start peeing a continuous stream of text.” Is that how you see artificial intelligence?

Antoine Bello: At base, artificial intelligence and writers have something in common. Both produce stories from a range of material. Both pick out correlations. AI helps people to make sense of the chaos that surrounds them, of all the billions of pieces of data that we produce each day and store in the cloud.

Before understanding the laws of nature, people made up stories to explain the weather. I think we are hardwired to make up stories. We have always needed to believe that the phenomena we see are somehow linked. That is probably the only way to survive and move forward. Without it, we would constantly be terrified of the things we don’t understand. The human cortex has this ability, which appears to be unique in the animal kingdom, to observe independent events and come up with a chronology, a meaning. That is what we are now trying to teach machines. What a challenge!

So yes, I think that artificial intelligence will tell us stories. Isn’t that what Business Intelligence is already doing for decision makers? There is one last point that explains our need to make up stories: they are a great mnemonic device. Giving facts an order is the best way to memorize them. Stories are units of meaning that switch on like a light bulb in your mind.

Artificial intelligence will tell us stories. Do tell us that writers will carry on making them up! What is your next project?

Antoine Bello: A variation on the theme of falsification, this time through the story of a pathological impostor. Find out more later this year!