Why would we want to outsource being human to a machine?

Note: This piece first appeared as an op-ed in The Toronto Star on January 23, 2023.

There is a swaggering new genre on the writing block and it involves humans writing about machines writing. Writers are churning out pieces, presumably on their own, extolling the uses of AI writing programs, declaring the high school or college essay dead, and offering suggestions for a new partnership between humans and machines.

The new genre expresses sympathy for teachers and professors who must find new ways to prevent their students from cheating. The machine can likewise amuse, writing speeches like Martin Luther King or poetry like Coleridge.

In a recent essay in The Atlantic titled “The College Essay is Dead,” novelist and journalist Stephen Marche muses that machine analysis of language patterns might be able to tell us which plays Shakespeare wrote “or will reformulate questions of literary style and philology; if you can teach a machine to write like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that machine must be able to inform you, in some way, about how Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote.”

Most writers give machine writing a B-plus but the subtext is that one day, not too far off, the writing will be even better, and if you can’t beat ’em, you might as well join ’em. This is the essential and eternal promise of technology and a nod to its perceived inevitability and superiority. But it’s not the only possible response to machine writing.

Where you stand on writing AI like ChatGPT depends on where you stand on writing. If you view writing as a chore, something that should be done as quickly and effortlessly as possible to achieve a practical end — sending a letter to your boss, completing a writing assignment — then machine writing is inarguably useful, just as a dishwasher is useful.

Or, if you think of writing as a game or an amusement, a sophisticated crossword puzzle, then machine writing has its place. But if you see writing as a pleasurable and worthwhile endeavour to figure out what you think and feel and to express it to another human being in the most beautiful and affecting and memorable way, then programs like ChatGPT are useless and irrelevant.

In this latter view, writing is fundamentally a human activity that no amount of machine capability can ever truly achieve. In response to Marche’s point, a machine might show us how to copy Coleridge but not how to be him. That’s part of the real mystery of literature, of any art. And the whole point of art is not to imitate, but to create. It’s why we celebrate Picasso and Vermeer but don’t celebrate the forgers of their works, not really.

In the same vein, would it be interesting to have a writing machine combine Shakespeare’s and Chekhov’s style to produce a new play? Or a screenplay mixing Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino? Or John Donne and George Lucas? Perhaps, in a parlour game kind of way.

But if writing is about exploring who we are, then machine writing is just cheating ourselves. It’s like the joke about the person who didn’t want to have to wear glasses. They memorized the eye chart so they would pass the optometrist’s exam. Machine writing ​is​​ like a​ ​mountain climber asking a robot ​to ​climb Mount Everest for them. Could the robot get there more quickly? Likely. But what’s the point? There is a joy and a meaning in doing certain things ourselves.

Yes, writing in some forms does have an inherent usefulness but writing at its heart — like all art — is not about a means to an end but about an end in itself. It’s about affirming the worth of individuals as ends in themselves. It’s about rebelling against the view that we are nothing more than the means to someone else’s end, usually someone else with a claim to greater knowledge and power.

This is why all dictatorships fear writers, why they censor them, sometimes kill them, sometimes burn their books. It’s often less about what writers say than it is about the fact they affirm their right to say it.

Just because something can be done by a machine more quickly and with less effort doesn’t mean it’s better. Is writing done by a machine real? I would argue it might look real and might fool us into thinking it’s real but it’s not really real. Writing is not a game. It’s one key aspect of what makes us human.

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