As Mercury spends its final moments in Aquarius and conjoins Saturn for the final time in 30 years, the celestial scene is set for a discussion on the emergence of AI technologies into the mainstream theater. This is not a new conversation, but the reality is arriving and landing with professional and ethical implications that we’ve long anticipated and wrestled with as a society. With the prophecies of science fiction coming into fruition all around us, we each have different coping mechanisms for dealing with the unfamiliar, the uncertain, and the strange.
I’d like to preface what I’m about to write with a disclaimer: I’m not unequivocally in opposition to AI. My coping mechanism for the aforementioned phenomena lands somewhere between sardonicism, skepticism, and provocative play. As someone who works in information systems and technology, I am somewhat abreast of the potential benefits that this technology can and has already provided to many people. However, I am also wary of scientific amoralism — the kind that pulls entities like atomic bombs out of the ethers. I don’t believe that everything that can be created necessarily should be created. There are very fine distinguishing lines between a weapon and a tool. This is the line I ride in this blog post — a kind of existential edging, if you will, rubbing against the perils and possibilities of our techno-oriented future.
I feel a certain angst at even writing the name of the technological entity at the center of today’s discussion. However, cringeworthy as I may find it, I yield my impulse to skirt around the issue. My avoidance stems from a Voldemorte-esque fear that by speaking someone or something’s name, we give it a certain power in the material realm. However irrational this may be, it’s also grounded in our techno-reality: every time we mention something, we throw it hunks of SEO flesh to be devoured by the monstrosities of the enigmatic and elusive and “algorithm.”
ChatGPT … I’m talking about ChatGPT. There, I wrote it. And I’ll likely write it many times again before this article ends.
We live in an attention economy, and even bad publicity is good publicity in that it funnels people toward the spectacle. It doesn’t matter if it’s a car wreck or a pizza delivery guy saving a child from a burning building — to the algorithms, it’s all the same, as long as it is gets clicks and views. In that sense, these “equations” are self-serving and amoral. And yet, they inform and even dictate what most of us spend at least a few hours each day consuming. For fear of pausing too long on this last sentiment, lest the few remaining cells in the empathetic centers of our bodies turn to stone, I’ll try to quickly divert our attention back to the intended purpose of this piece of writing.
In some ways, the topic of writing is the topic of this particular piece of writing. Behold! Let the creative profundity of my “meta-monologuing” astound you. I will not be replaced by the machine mind just yet! With the advent and adoption of ChatGPT, a lot of people in a lot of different industries are shaking in their swivel chairs. The implications of ChatGPT and other similar (and non-similar) technologies expand into almost every industry and aspect of our technological lives. However, I’m choosing, in this brief moment we’re sharing together here, to lightly explore its implications in the art/creativity/writing sphere. Basically, I’m using my time to talk about how this affects me.
As a writer, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks thinking about how ChatGPT and AI writing technology will impact my profession … and other adjacent creative professions, but mostly my own, because financial insecurity makes me feel selfish. At first, I was nervous, then I got angry, then I found it quite funny, and now I’m feeling rather convinced that I don’t really care what happens with ChatGPT. Ok, I do care (a lot, a lot) but I’m slightly less concerned than I was, because I realized that there’s a distinct part of my own creativity — and the creativity of all other artists (since I’m feigning selflessness here) — that can never be touched by any kind of artificial intelligence. What makes creativity, and the byproduct that we call “art,” compelling to me is that it’s an expression of the human pursuit of and struggle for meaning.
In short, I don’t know if ChatGPT can suffer like I can. Because boy, can I suffer! And I would argue that it is my deepest existential dread that has played a major influence in making me the writer I am today. If you don’t think I’m much of a writer, feel free to let me know, and I’ll be happy to suffer further at the hands of your criticisms.
I think part of what annoys me about ChatGPT (and whatever future iterations arrive in the decades to come) is that there is probably a fairly large part of the human population who will not be able to distinguish human art from machine-created art, or who won’t care, or who might even prefer it. I liken this to the phenomenon of country music fans feeling kindred to Toby Keith because he sings about being a blue-collar worker, as if he spent some significant portion of his life doing manual labor. That’s not ChatGPT’s fault, as much as it’s not Toby Keith’s fault. As human beings, we’re susceptible to being deceived by marketing ploys and manipulative tactics aimed at taking our money in exchange for feelings of acceptance. I understand — I once purchased a $60 piece of fleece they called a Snuggie.
The words of Canadian philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan ring in my ears as I resolve to wrap up this brief piece of writing on writing: “The medium is the message.” At some point, ChatGPT might develop the chops to write some killer prose. I imagine we will see novels written entirely by artificial intelligence at some point — that is, if they don’t already exist. (How many mysteries has Dean Koontz actually written in his lifetime?) However, the medium and its moral and ethical implications — the context that envelops the content — must be considered as part of the entirety of the message as we interpret and assimilate it. We don’t just digest the cheese; we digest the whole enchilada. This was McLuhan’s invitation that currently reads more like a warning. For me, this is why ChatGPT will never produce great art: because the value is not solely in the end product. It’s in the everywhere-in-between. Until ChatGPT learns the existential struggle of experiencing life and contending with death inside a human body, everything it creates will just be nothing more than a glorified meme mimic. (I love me a good meme but I hope we can agree to make some distinctions between say, a Gustav Klimt painting and the (hilarious) shit posted on the @fuckjerry Instagram account.)
To attempt to put the exclamation on my point, I’ll leave you with my favorite Emily Dickinson poem:
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me
Visual: Gustav Klimt