This month I turned 40 and once I’d finished shoving Victoria sponge down my birthday cakehole, I began doing what many people do when they reach that key life milestone; I started to consider my own mortality and what the rest of my life will bring.
That process isn’t as morbid as it sounds. For me it has been more exhilarating than exhausting. A way to think carefully and deeply about what I believe is important. About people, purpose and legacy and how I intend to squeeze every drop out of the second half of my life in service to those things.
But, while I’ve been wrestling with these existential questions, the furore around ChatGPT has exploded into our collective consciousness and try as I might I can’t seem to shake it from my mind. It’s fair to say I haven’t responded well to this latest big tech panacea.
In fact, my instinct has been a deep and strong aversion to the idea of algorithmic authors taking over the world of writing. I’ve been a little shocked by the strength of feeling it has aroused in me.
Perhaps it’s mere self-preservation that’s provoking my ire. The knowledge that it’s not just the inches I can pinch around my middle-aged paunch that could pose a threat to my future. That my career, identity and livelihood as a writer, communicator and storyteller is potentially under threat from AI over the long-term.
That would be an understandable response. On the face of it, automating certain writing tasks can bring obvious benefits. It can save time and money and allow for a creation of scale that it’s difficult to compete with if you’re a mere human being. Who wouldn’t be troubled by the sight of a shiny new robot walking into their virtual office, throwing their favourite coffee mug in the bin and starting to work around the clock?
I can see the case for automation of more functional writing tasks. Drafting forms, T&C’s, some surveys etc. are laborious and AI has a place in helping to make those processes easier. I’m not about to storm the virtual textile factories and smash the digital looms in opposition to that.
It’s more than my own economic self-preservation. The unease runs far deeper.
Windows into the world around us
My whole life has been dedicated to exploring the art of writing, communication, and storytelling. I have come to understand how they shape us and the world around us. When we write we tell each other stories about how each of us are experiencing life.
Without this act of sharing, each of us is doomed to experiencing life alone. So, we communicate with each other to orientate ourselves through the world and understand how we fit in as we move through it.
Writing offers us alternative views. Not just information to satisfy Maslow’s hierarchy of needs but to enrich our lives, to connect with others, feel empathy and emotion, and with that, understand deepen and enrich our own human experience. Writing opens small windows into what is happening around us, bringing colour, vibrancy and meaning to everything we do.
In the bestselling book ‘The Power of Myth’ (1988) Joseph Campbell (renowned writer, professor of literature and expert in myth) is in conversation with journalist Bill Moyers. Both discuss the importance of myth in the modern world making the point that;
‘…what human beings have in common is revealed in myths. Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. We all need to tell our story and understand our story. We all need help in our passages from birth to life and then to death. We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are.’
I don’t know about you but that confirms for me that writing is far too important to be simply left to an AI platform Microsoft is building to benefit shareholders.
There is no connection available
Anyone with a smartphone will tell you that our experience of big tech exists on a knife edge. On the one hand it has opened a world of possibilities, on the other there is a sense the march of the algorithms is palely imitating, and weakening, real human interactions.
There is a growing sense that we need a collective digital detox. That we need to be vigilant and mitigate and manage the impact that convenience tech is having on our lives and our human relationships.
And this is the rub for everyone. It is also the reassuring silver lining for comms professionals. As Nick Cave so astutely said, data does not suffer. And if data doesn’t suffer, why would I care about what it writes?
The truth is that I don’t and I won’t.
As pointed out above, there is a place for AI with simpler writing tasks. But when it comes to writing and communication designed to reach people, inspire emotion, and action we need connection not convenience. For that reason, over time, I can see people rejecting the notion of writing and comms produced solely by AI.
Ghosts in a machine are a pale imitation of a beating human heart.
Just before I was born 40 years ago the film Bladerunner (1982) was released. In the acclaimed final scene, a ‘Replicant’ robot played by Rutger Hauer reflects on his own existence and holds a mirror up to a helpless Harrison Ford and the rest of humanity. Just before he dies, he is painfully aware of the rich experiences of his existence he hasn’t been able to share;
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
Convenience at all costs? Be careful what you wish for.