Why would writing be any different?
Posted On 30 March 2023
Fair warning, I’m going to wade into the whole AI/ChatGPT discussion. It’s been discussed to death, but I’m going to jump in anyway. Feel free to click away if you’re already sick of the topic. I’m going to use “ChatGPT” as a stand-in for ML/AI-driven writing tools, even though it’s not the only one on the market and there’s certainly more to come.
Anyway, it seems like ChatGPT is poised to automate away a lot of writing work, and we’re in for tools that are going to produce a whole lot of content of varying quality and accuracy whether we like that prospect or not.Whether this seems good or bad depends a whole lot on where you’re sitting and whether you value writing as a core skill or an art, or if you just want to do more faster and cheaper.
Today I was skimming a discussion on Mastodon with a bunch of folks agreeing with each other that ChatGPT-driven content was awful, nobody should use it, that writing was important, etc. I want to agree, to some extent I do agree, but I also recognize that this set of arguments is not novel and has been employed over and over again in the face of technical advances from the printing press to synthesizers to damn near anything else you can name that let people do more faster and cheaper.
Here’s the thing: In my more than 50 years I haven’t seen “more, faster and cheaper” lose. Ever.
Furthermore, people are very, very selective in what jobs shouldn’t be automated away or changed drastically by automation.
Look down at your shoes, assuming you’re wearing any right now. Are you wearing hand-crafted artisanal shoes that cost hundreds of dollars, or are you wearing mass produced footwear that was put together in a factory setting with the lowest cost labor possible?
Look at your other clothes and around your house. How much of your stuff would’ve been hand-crafted 50, 100 years ago, but is a product of industrialization and automation today? Do you use self checkout or do you only shop places that still only use real humans as cashiers? Ever studied a language with an app instead of a tutor?
But, you say, that stuff isn’t art. It’s not the same at all. OK.
You listen to music? By any chance did any of the artists use synthesizers instead of a horn section or string players? Did anybody use a drum machine instead of a real, live human playing percussion?
Automation and mechanization wasn’t supposed to come for the writers, right? Our jobs were supposed to be safe. Only people can write, computers can’t write.
Suddenly, they kind of can. Not as well as people, in a lot of ways, but holy shit have they advanced way faster than they were supposed to.
My dad used to make a good living as a pinstriper and sign painter in the 70s and 80s. Towards the end of the 80s vinyl sign cutters and plotters ate a huge chunk of his business, very quickly. They didn’t and couldn’t do the same quality of work, and weren’t as flexible. As far as I know, they still can’t. The product doesn’t last as long, and it just doesn’t have that human touch.
People didn’t care. More, faster and cheaper. Sorry, your skill has been rendered obsolete. Please enjoy the fond memory of a living wage.
I don’t know how ChatGPT-type tools are going to impact those of us who make some or all of our living with the written word. I don’t think it’s going to be good, exactly. Some people are likely to be relegated to prompt-jockeying and cleaning up ChatGPT output, fact-checking and fixing its “hallucinations” and shoveling content ever faster. Some folks may do fine, their niche protected by raw talent or sheer luck, or both. Others are probably going to get squeezed out and forced to retrain to do something else.
But, you see, we’ll have more. Faster, and cheaper.
As long as it’s all about accelerating things and more and more profit, don’t expect that we’ll hit the brakes on AI-driven content in any of its forms. We didn’t hit the brakes for cobblers, we didn’t hit the brakes for seamstresses, we didn’t hit the brakes for sign painters. It seems like folly to expect that this would be any different at all. Because it won’t be, even though I’d certainly like to be wrong on this front.
This is just a tiny corner of the discussion, and I have a lot more on my mind about it, but that’s enough for now.