Why I’m Optimistic

9 February 2023

Anyone who creates public work today is in a race for human attention. You may not have asked to be in the race, or even know that you’re running in it; but you are. Technology has become the nervous system for everything. When you’re building attention for what you do, you have to use tech. Exceptions include setting up a lemonade stand on a street corner in a small town in Iowa or selling baked goods in your kid’s school parking lot. Aside from those use cases, you will somehow need to go online.

Right now, online = chaos. Platforms have become corroded, rotting like batteries left in an old toy. The investors who backed those platforms are desperate to monetize them, resulting in enshittification, a hollowing out and misdirection of their original purpose.[1(https://mjtsai.com/blog/2023/01/27/the-enshittification-of-all-things/)] It’s easy to look at the online = chaos equation and let it take you to a dead end, but in chaos there is opportunity [^Sun Tzu, The Art of War].

When writing about online chaos, there are many depressing topics to choose from, but I’d like to stick to one depressing topic. Will artificial intelligence harm or help human creativity?

When OpenAI released the ChatGBT chatbot, they unleashed a new form of bullshit upon the world. Well, maybe not so new. The bullshit that ChatGBT offers has been practiced for years by college freshmen everywhere, as they try to write papers on topics they know little about. ChatGBT does the same. Drawing from all the junk posted online from the early days of the web to last year, it responds to your prompt, providing an answer not guided by intelligence, or taste, or sense, but by merely guessing what the next word in the sentence might be.

It’s a terrible blow to human creativity, a terrible idea generally, but considered good enough for Microsoft to invest $10 billion in it. [^[Forbes](https://www.forbes.com/sites/qai/2023/01/27/microsoft-confirms-its-10-billion-investment-into-chatgpt-changing-how-microsoft-competes-with-google-apple-and-other-tech-giants/?sh=3daa14f43624)] Microsoft has unleashed many horrors upon the world. (Remember Clippy?) I would rather scratch stories in the sand than use Microsoft WORD, but everybody uses WORD, so I have to as well. A chatbot that guesses the next word in the sentence is going to change how you search for things online; Google is working on a search chatbot; Microsoft plans to include one in Bing, their search engine that nobody uses or has heard of, and Quora, the site used to ask and answer questions, plans to offer its own bullshitting chatbot to bullshit its answers to your questions. It’s a marvel of Large Language Learning Models and a testament to the power of bullshit in modern life.[2(https://bookshop.org/p/books/on-bullshit-harry-g-frankfurt/10471257?ean=9780691122946), is considered the primary work on this subject. I haven’t read it yet, but by footnoting it here, aren’t I proving its point?]

Hey, I bet you think I’ve dug a pretty deep hole for myself with this essay, eh? The title of this thing said I was optimistic. WTF. Here’s where I take a sharp conceptual turn, so please strap in or hold on to something sturdy.

Grammar and spell check apps have become my writing partners. I couldn’t imagine writing in a flowing way without them. I use Siri to read back my text using the voice of a woman with a Scottish accent. It’s my preferred proofreading method. I have the world’s knowledge right on my screen. (I’m using footnotes in this essay just to impress you.) I write with pencils and a nice fountain pen my wife gave me as a much-appreciated gift, and I use notebooks. I don’t have to use a computer or iPad to write, but I choose to most of the time. I also don’t choose to use a chatbot to write for me, and neither do you.

Saying no is liberating.

Writing involves looking inside yourself. It’s a soul journey. Anyone who writes and enjoys it wants to take that journey, because they know their work will involve the heart. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want your heart involved, who hates journeys, and would rather use a bot to do their thinking and feeling, I say: great. Produce content for your marketing email, your brochure copy, your meeting minutes. That kind of writing can be pretty dumb, but it’s about to become dumber because humans won’t be doing it for much longer.

CNET has already tried using a chatbot to create their clickbaity SEO-friendly articles, and not only were those articles filled with mistakes, but once the mistakes were discovered, the articles had to be fixed by humans, adding to the time to make SEO-friendly garbage, and erasing any efficiencies gained by using a bot to create them.[3(https://www.theverge.com/2023/2/2/23582046/cnet-red-ventures-ai-seo-advertisers-changed-reviews-editorial-independence-affiliate-marketing) its AI system was always faster than human writers at generating stories, the company found, but editing its work took much longer than editing a real staffer’s copy.”] Huh. Well, what do you know about that.

Nevertheless, Jonah Peretti has said that Buzzfeed will use AI to make listicles and other SEO-friendly effluvia, and this will help the writers who work there, freeing them up from writing pieces like Ten Dogs You Can Own that Make You Seem Hot to Other Dog Owners in the Dog Park to writing investigative journalism pieces. I don’t buy it.

Max Read suggests there are two paths for AI journalism. In one, AI replaces humans; in the other, it helps them. He believes both options suck, and argues that, A good rule of thumb is to start from the assumption that any story you hear about using AI in real-world settings is, beneath everything else, a story about labor automation.” Yeah, what he said.[^<https://maxread.substack.com/p/two-paths-for-ai-journalism>?]

The online chaos we’re experiencing now means that certain types of writing will die. A terrible freshman essay picked out on a keyboard smudged with old pizza will still be terrible, even if written by an AI. An educator named John Warner called that sort of forced essay, with its fake structural demands, a writing-related simulation. [4(https://biblioracle.substack.com/p/chatgpt-cant-kill-anything-worth)] We made a mistake thinking it was a good thing to train students to write like an algorithm,” he wrote. Now we know we have to undo that mistake.” [^<https://twitter.com/biblioracle/status/1599110383180320768>]

By the end of next week, or sooner, you won’t be able to tell if a bot wrote your meeting minutes, but if you finish that novel you’re reading (or writing) you’d better believe that a lot of human heart went into that work. Writing deeply connects people. It builds the soul; that’s what it’s for. The material it produces is the byproduct.

Machines are building their product on the backs of human labor. AI writers have to learn from humans before they can bullshit their way through an essay, and AI illustrators are trained on the world’s production of art before they can create an illustration of a Wendy’s hamburger drive-thru in the style of Picasso. This doesn’t seem fair, but if you’re colonizing culture, you need free labor. That’s how colonialist exploitation has always worked; what’s new is that bots (guided by their human investor/masters) are the colonizers of our culture.

Art produced by humans will become more valuable; art produced by bots is already more common. When everything is in flux, things feel shaky. Dan Sinker wrote, It feels like the platforms that have defined and dictated our interactions online for the last 15 years or so have been dealt a real blow for the first time in forever.” The era of platforms is not fully over, he wrote, but recommends that we try new things while we can. [5(https://dansinker.com/posts/threethings/)]

We’ve grown dependent on platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok) to use as our megaphone. We want to gather people around our work, but how? Things are starting to look a little more DIY for online promotion and community-building, and that’s good. Some are saying that the internet might turn useful again, with small federated communities populated by friendly people. I see that day coming.

My new novel Surrender is available for your reading pleasure. Buy it at these booksellers.

  1. Michael Tsai, quoting Cory Doctorow↩︎

  2. On Bullshit, by Henry Frankfurt↩︎

  3. The Verge reported that↩︎

  4. ChatGPT Can’t Kill Anything Worth Preserving↩︎

  5. Everything Gets Brighter from Here↩︎

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