Monkeys Typing Shakespeare: Plagiarism’s New Frontier

A teacher friend came into my classroom this morning with a new internet discovery which proves once and for all that it is in fact possible to get a group of monkeys together with some typewriters (read: computers with internet access) who will, given a little time and some encouragement, recreate the works of Shakespeare.  My teacher friend was introducing me to a new website called Essaytyper.com and he prefaced his introduction with the query, “Can I show you something really scary?”  Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you’re a monkey–or a very desperate (or lazy) high school or college student.  You’ve got to write a paper on Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller. You go to Essaytyper.com and on the homepage you’ll find a friendly looking little post-it note type thing with the following message:  “Oh No!  It’s finals week and I have to finish my _______ essay immediately!”  You, my monkey friend, type in “Death of a Salesman” into the blank.  Now, this would be difficult if you were an actual monkey, but you’re not, and you may have to hunt and peck, but eventually you’ll type in the 19 characters and spaces of this particular title.  Now, push the little graphic pencil button with your cursor or hit ENTER.  Wait for it.  Wait for it.  What do you see?

A title.  That’s all.  A title: “The Fluidity of Death Of A Salesman: Gender Norms & Racial Bias in the Study of the Modern Death Of A Salesman“.  Hey, wait a minute.  You wanted a paper to turn in to your English teacher, and, while this is a very fine sounding title, you don’t know what it means and couldn’t begin to write a paper on such a topic.  Something possesses you, though, and, even though it takes a little bit of effort, you put your fingers to the keyboard and type two keys. For some reason inexplicable to you, you choose a capital G.  Voila.  The word “Death” appears.  Intuitively, you push the space bar.  The words “of a” appear on the screen.  For every single key you stroke, no matter which one, you get at least a complete word and sometimes two or three words. You’ve already got the hang of it.  You begin randomly flailing your fingers all over the keyboard as if you were a toddler, or, need we say it, a monkey.  As a result of flailing around on the keyboard for, say, 30 seconds, you’ve got three pages of pedestrian but correct prose about the play in question.  It appears to be mostly, if not all, plot summary;  it has nothing to do, thus far, with the title, but man, you feel good.  Another 30 seconds of “labor” and you’ll have a complete paper to turn in to your beloved English teacher.

Gone are those pesky days of actually reading things you might steal.  Gone are the days of cutting and pasting from Sparks Notes, or god forbid, actually typing material straight from a book.  Gone is the laborious task of reformatting those things you’ve cut and pasted!  Oh joy!  It is now easier than ever to cheat oneself out of an education!  It’s now easier than ever to get schoolwork done without exercising your brain in the least bit!  And if your teacher is a total dummy and doesn’t care if you begin a literary essay with three pages of mindless plot summary, and because the writing that appears in front of him or her in  the form of a paper written by YOU is really not very good after all, you might just get away with this caper.

Now, to the website author’s credit, there is a cautionary note through the “What is this” link.  It reads: “EssayTyper uses a patented combination of magic and wikipedia to help you type your paper–fast!  That said, please don’t ever try to use this legitimately. The magic part is not real. . . And that’s plagiarism. Questions? Shoot me a note.”

Okay–so this guy or gal doesn’t want the site used as a means to cheat in school or otherwise steal intellectual property.  There’s no advertising on the site or offers to buy papers or any of that other smarmy bullshit you find out there on sites that help people cheat.  I think I understand that the spirit of the thing is whimsical and fun: “I’m typing absolute random crap and I’m making real words and coherent sentences and paragraphs!” But that’s only novel and fun for awhile, and inevitably, many young ones are going to use the site for evil purposes and the author of EssayTyper probably knows it.  I’ve got an idea.

Let’s get back to the monkeys.  Now, it’s one thing that I’m able to type a mediocre paper on almost any subject by hitting random keys on the keyboard which somehow magically imports text from wikipedia, but it would be quite another thing if I  could write the plays of Shakespeare!  That would be almost exciting.  And it would be quite another more impressive thing if I was a monkey typing Shakespeare.  I mean, as a monkey, I wouldn’t understand that I was typing Shakespeare, but the human beings gathered around to watch and record the thing for all posterity would understand–and they would be giddy with amusement and wonder.  Get enough monkeys together and in an afternoon they could produce The Complete Works.  That’s what the author of EssayTyper needs to do.  Shakespeare, after all, is in the public domain–and I’m sure there are philosophers enough interested in pursuing The Monkey Question.  Who knows, maybe it’s already in the works.

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Filed under Culture, Teaching, Writing and Reading

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