How long have I been staring at a blank screen, this accusing white box, struggling to compose the first sentence of a post I know will be difficult to write? About two minutes, actually, but that’s at least ten times longer than ChatGPT takes to compose a full page. And it’s those two minutes – and the several days I struggled with this post afterwards – that convince me that ChatGPT will not destroy writing. In fact, I think it may encourage more of us to write, and more still to consume the imperfect, raw, and resonant product of our efforts.
I’m a pretty fast writer, but I’m a deliberate and vicious editor – I’ll happily kill several paragraphs of my own text just minutes after I’ve composed them. I know that the best writing happens in the editing, and the most important part of composition is to simply get some decent clay on the wheel. ChatGPT seems to be really good at that clay part. But it’s in the second part – the editing – that the pot gets thrown*.
Everyone from educators to legislators seem to be asking how we can distinguish between writing done by AIs, and writing done by actual humans. But if the age of the centaur is truly upon us, perhaps we don’t have to. Authorship is already a complicated process of bricolage and outright theft. I don’t see why adding a tool like ChatGPT should be anything but welcomed.
Some argue that ChatGPT already is writing like humans – which implies it will replace writing, instead of merely complementing it. Indeed, ChatGPT can string sentences together in often extremely useful or humorous ways. And sure, it may likely replace structured text like sports summaries or earnings reports. But I don’t think tools like ChatGPT will ever be able to write like Sam Kriss, or Zeynep Tufecki, or Anil Dash.
When I write, I have no idea how the work is going to end, much less what ideas or points I’ll make as I pursue its composition. For a reader, the beauty in a piece of writing is its wholeness. It’s a complete thing – it starts, it blathers on for some period of time, it ends. But for a writer, an essay is a process, a living thing. You compose, you reflect, you edit, reject, reshape, and repeat. Once it’s finished, the piece quickly settles into an afterlife, a fossilized artifact of a process now complete. The principle joy** of writing for the writer isn’t in admiring what you’ve made (though there’s a bit of that as well), it’s in its creation.
And that process of creation – the struggle, the chuckles, the bloodied revisioning; the sense that a piece is starting to come together, the constant editing – all of it works together to make something that is distinctly human. Intelligences like ChatGPT can parrot that output, but by definition they cannot actually create it.*** What they can do is aid in its creation, but providing a muse-like response to the questions and hypotheses that naturally arise while one struggles to write.
About halfway through this piece I had the notion of illustrating this concept by asking ChatGPT for help in this essay’s composition, but alas, the service is not currently available – it’s overwhelmed by demand. That’s a huge opportunity for OpenAI, the service’s owner, and I doubt ChatGPT is going to end up a fad like Clubhouse or 99 percent of crypto. I think it’s got legs, because all of us, whether we’re professionals or not, could use someone smart whispering in our ear as we compose. We may even find new kinds of writing through the relationships we cultivate with services like ChatGPT, just as we will find new ways of coding, making art, or making music.
There is something special about how we humans create works like essays or a piece of music. It’s uniquely a product of how we think, and no other species – including machines – think quite like we do. That thought process is infinitely plastic, and will certainly incorporate tools like ChatGPT, remaining distinctly human as it does. By extension, a piece wrought from a human intelligence has a particular effect on humans, one that can’t be recreated by any other intelligence, artificial or not. In short, we’re people, and we like stuff made by people. If ChatGPT can help us make more people-made stuff, well then, I say bring it on.
*Of course most writers would argue with my choice of the word “joy”- perhaps “ecstasy” is more appropriate, in the second Oxford sense: “an emotional or religious frenzy or trance-like state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.” If the writing’s going well, I certainly do lose myself inside of it. Time is suspended, flow is found.
** I mean “thrown” as in “shaping a pot on the wheel,” not “thrown” as in “one throws a pot against the wall in frustration.” I chose the word intentionally, considered it, and then decided to keep it. “Thrown” is a word choice that, if made by an algorithm, could prove its inhumanity – an error made by a computer. Yet when a person pushes through the obvious and into an odd timbre or slightly discordant usage, well, that can make for good writing.
***I’ve used that word “intelligences” intentionally. I’m reading James Bridle’s Ways of Being. Part of its core argument is that there are many kinds of intelligences, and more likely than not, machines already have their own. Bridle also argues – pretty persuasively – that there’s nothing particularly special about ours.