What might 19th-century print practices teach us about large language models like ChatGPT? This talk will address that question from several angles. First, the talk will draw on research from the Viral Texts digital humanities project (https://viraltexts.org) to consider how historical practices of text reuse, such as the reprinting that undergirded American newspapers in the 19th century, might help scholars situate 21st-century language models in a long tradition of "unoriginal" writing. Building from there, the talk will posit "composition" as a concept worth revisiting and disentangling—as it once was in the historical print shop—from writing. Finally, the talk will propose a bibliographic approach to AI systems, drawing on the traditions of book history and bibliography, along with newer methods of data archeology, to study the diffuse and often obscured textual sociology of large language models.
Ryan Cordell is Associate Professor in the School of Information Sciences and Department of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Before joining the iSchool, Ryan Cordell was associate professor of English at Northeastern University and a core founding faculty member in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. His scholarship seeks to illuminate how technologies of production, reception, circulation, and remediation shape the meanings of texts within historical communities, as well as how the complexities of historical texts pressure modern scholarly infrastructure. Cordell primarily studies circulation and reprinting in nineteenth-century American newspapers, but his interests extend to the influence of digitization and computation on contemporary reading, writing, and research. He collaborates with colleagues in English, History, and Computer Science on the Viral Texts project, which uses robust data mining tools to discover borrowed texts across large-scale archives of nineteenth-century periodicals. He is also a practicing letterpress printer who explores intersections between historical and contemporary information technologies through the lens of maker culture. Cordell is a Senior Fellow in the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Critical Bibliography at the Rare Book School and serves as the Delegate Assembly Representative for the MLA's Forum on Digital Humanities.