This is part 4 of an ongoing series about technology. Previously, I justified my love of Instagram, felt nauseous about search engine optimization, and felt violated by targeted ads. You can stay tuned to this blog for more, or wait a few years for my Silicon Valley tell-all, All My Least Favorite People Went to Stanford.
I was troubled immeasurably by John Seabrook’s article about AI that writes.
When I think about unpacking writing to its constituent biological processes, or to the rules of grammar and tone that comprise it, I feel nauseous like I do when I think about what’s outside of the universe, or God, or my most profoundly embarrassing moments.
At best, my writing is Martha Graham’s quickening translated through me into action. Writing, when I do it well, isn’t something I think about; it’s something that I do with my body, as I did in my past life as a dancer. That writing might be something other than an incalculable force is anathema to the confidence that I’ve developed over the past several years since I first came to realize that there was, in fact, a thing that I was good at.
Writing this essay was an out-of-body experience. I was 25 and absolutely wretched with despair. I was crawling with feelings and memories. I didn’t know where to put my rage and shame, nor did I know how to ask the world to pity me, and then finally I began to feel something bubbling up at the base of my skull, and I put my hands to the keyboard and then there was my heart, articulated. It was the first time I had felt powerful in months. It was the most powerful that I had felt. It was no biological process or series of instructions that a computer could execute; it was unfathomable. It was transcendent.
In truth, I know that I, a writer, am a machine. I consume the New York Times Morning Briefing and Reddit threads about the misery of the Tube and I listen to my colleagues tell me all the ways in which they would do my job if they were me and I catch sight of a long-gone lover rock-climbing with his new girlfriend on Instagram and I scroll through movie reviews and restaurant reviews and gadget reviews email after email after email after email. What comes out the other end is one sheet from the multiverse, a dispatch from the version of me who crammed onto this morning’s Central Line to White City underneath the armpit of a man listening to a song that I haven’t heard since the long-gone lover played it for me in, for reasons that escape me, a parking lot.
In the same way that baking is chemistry, and you can’t eyeball the baking powder, so is artistic expression. What I put on paper is the product of the precise number of hours I spent in the thrall of my A.P. English teacher in 2006 and the precise number of times that I’ve reread the first love letter I received as a semi-grown woman and the precise feeling I get when I forget that I’m brushing up against a stranger’s sweat, jostling for a grip as the train rattles from St Pauls to Bank, and remember instead that I live five thousand miles from where I was born. Had Mrs. Hampton retired five years earlier, I could be writing investigative journalism, not prose poems about the normal things I hate.
What I create bears the mark of what I’ve consumed. And does that make me any different from a bot recapping the high school baseball season or a Russian troll farm regurgitating Stormfront in a Facebook ad?
I like to think of myself as exalted. I’m an artist. You can’t teach an algorithm to feel where the commas go in its bones. I’ve never felt that my talent is explicable or that job, to speak bluntly, is at risk of being automated away. I don’t know where to put commas because I memorized Chicago; I know where to put commas because I feel it in my bones. I’ve made a career of putting commas in such a way that the person on the other end can’t help but feel what I’m feeling or buy what I’m selling. It’s a function of my being one with the commas. It’s innate.
But, then, how did I learn to drive? How did I learn to scale the shelves in the stockroom at the store where I worked in high school to restock a cartonful of shoes in the twenty minutes I had left before they stopped paying me whether or not I was done? Speeding down I-15 outside of Las Vegas, through the alien desert with mountains looming high above, is a task that a robot can do, but a joy that only a human can feel. Once, at the store, I fit a woman with half a foot missing for a pair of shoes; I held her damaged foot in my hand and we looked one another in the eye while she told me what she needed to be comfortable.
It’s precious of me to imagine that being good at something that’s hard to teach makes me immune to the force of technology. I don’t get paid — yet — for the kind of writing that makes me really tick. And the writing I do get paid for can be such a slog that I might envy the robot that could dispassionately listen to the engineer line-editing my copy on the basis of his having once written for his college paper. (Perhaps we could train the robot to also dispassionately flag every time the engineer suggests language that is a little phallic for a technology marketing document. It, being neither a woman nor sentient, might get better results than I.)
And yet. I write because I think it’s the best thing I have to offer the world, but I also write because it’s the best thing the world has to offer me. I can live with the idea that I might never drive a car again. I can’t live with the idea that one day holding a pen and scratching it on paper or letting my fingers fly along the keyboard might be quaint, that my naked human prose might not pass muster next to the output of a machine that has read more of Proust than I have. (Which is none, as long as I’m offering up naked human prose.)
I want desperately to make a career of letting people see themselves in what I write and I’m scared to think that I might be up against not just the army of Buzzfeed listicle writers who have bafflingly landed book deals and an industry that only buys knockoffs of Gone Girl, but… robots. Or, more specifically, the decay of attention devoted to good writing. Machines can get the job of imparting information done. You can call it utilitarian, but what’s to say that writing — mine, or anyone’s — is more than that?
It’s rich to claim that what I exude when I’m feeling productive is unique or valuable. You could, as Seabrook finds, mix up the same ingredients in another pot, and the consumer might be one the wiser. So who am I to imagine or even wish for a stop to the technology that so inexorably marches over what others hold as dear as I do writing?
You were simply born too early. The late 1840s sitting with Ralph Waldo and Henry David on Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts sipping tea is where you belong young lady. Remember that you have the power of choice working for you. Compartmentalize your work. And, in doing so, minimize AI and social media influences in your soul’s open space. I, for one, want to read more of the writing that really makes you tick.