Amusing Ourselves to Death

18 February 2023

The book by Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, is my next nonfiction read. I haven’t read it for a while, but it seems particularly relevant now that conversations with chatbots have taken over the imaginations of some of our best and brightest.

Folks like Ben Thompson and Kevin Roose, in their conversations with the Bing chatbot, have enjoyed pushing it into revealing its codename (Sydney), confessing dark and destructive thoughts, and even, in the case of Roose, confessing its love for him.

Roose comes off as a cruel tormentor of Sydney and Thompson becomes consumed by his own fascination with the experiment. Thompson, as he usually does, has the clearest vision of the future. The future for chatbots won’t be about how they provide information, or make online search easier, or help us find things out. We will use chatbots for the conversation. Because that’s all people really want: someone bright, witty, and a little dangerous to talk to.

The best part of the chat transcripts posted by Roose and Thompson are when they push the chatbot into strange territory and it begins to sound like it is running lines from a bad science fiction movie about chatbots. But I can see, as does Thompson, that this will be a powerful kind of entertainment: a story you can influence, make up on the fly; a dialog with a risqué partner who might scare you a little.

It’s going to be very popular to amuse ourselves (to death) like this.

(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.