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AI seems able to spew ineffectual and vapid words faster than me so I’ve decided to off myself in the bathtub

Reading the news it seems we’re all getting fired tomorrow. So I’ve decided to off myself in the bathtub like our forefathers and foremothers did anytime some months-old technology was talked about a lot on the Victrola.

Here’s how the telegraph went over:

The “Telegraph” kills the Pony by the first electric current breathed across the deserts and the mountains, and leaves us to choose the uncertainties surrounding its wires, or go back to the slow coach. All this tampering by politicians with the facilities for our mails, has resulted in no improvement, but a retrogation. The overland coach occasionally bring a letter in less than a month, but the idea of getting a paper through this route, is preposterous.

"A telegraph operator looks out over a dead pony on a dusty road".
Here’s the full graphic Stable Diffusion gave for the query “A telegraph operator looks out over a dead pony on a dusty road”.

On electricity and steam:

If public opinion is on the side of electricity this must be done. Hence the subterfuges resorted to in high places prevent the World and his Wife from having data to go upon which would lead to an almost unanimous judgment favourable to electricity, It is now found that electric light can be easily transformed into heat and motive power, and supersede steam and gas in the small domestic forges in which “l’article de Paris” is produced. The wires which illumine the carbon horseshoe or the arc at night can in the daytime be 15 muscles to the artisan. Early in this century the working classes rose in, rebellion against steam, which they felt would be a cruel taskmaster. French plutocracy is now setting its face against electricity because it is eming to emancipate the factory helot and to restore the home which the steam-engine tended to destroy. It will be in all probability, however, a long time before steam can be dispensed with as a ‘ generator, although the winds and waves might, on hilltops and breezy places…

On bicycles:

Catarrhal laryngitis is the latest disease charged up against the bicycle.

“I was going along the street the other day and I saw half a dozen young men who were neither straight nor crooked.

They were all bicycle riders. as I could tell at a glance, and they were all afflicted with the ‘safety stoop.’ Now the ‘safety stoop’ is a mighty bad thing.

“It is different from the scholastic stoop. It is different from the round-shouldered stoop. The man with the ‘safety stoop’ as it is called, often suffers impaired vitality.

On movies:

Day after sexy Silvana Man-gano, Italian film star of “Bitter Rice,” got here to celebrate “Salute to Italian Film Week,’ her $16,000 ring was stolen from her New York hotel room. It’s no news to us New Yorkers that robberies in our town are as common as alfalfa.

Never a day or night passes without a bank holdup a moving-picture box-office haul.

On automatic elevators causing crime:

Our New York State Rent administration is reported to favor a policy which frowns on automatic elevators for many reasons, some of which the Elevator Industries association challenges. Accidents and crime, according to the state rent board, are less likely when house elevators are run by attendants.

On computers:

Moreover, the capacity of the machine to memorize increases with some reference to its cost. A machine that operates a disc that will memorize, let us say, 64 bytes will give you 64,000 characters. Since the average word has five characters, then the disc is good for about 10,000 words, or about 12 times the length of this article.

You can get a second disc – and a third – and a 300th.

And the hardware exists that will search through your discs until it lands on “otiose.” But by that time you have run out of money and run out of time; so you resign yourself to the dictionary.

On Walkmen and teens wearing them at the Ohio State Fair:

I sympathize with people who are made so jittery by traffic noise and crying babies and angry shouting that they use the Walkman as a method to find personal solitude.

But the Ohio State Fair is sacrosanct; it is not to be tampered with at all, much less drowned out. When the Walkman invades the fair it has gone too far. Next thing you know, the spotted swine will be wearing them.

Teens in the 1990s walking around the Ohio State Fair wearing Walkmen
AI-generated image for “Teens in the 1990s walking around the Ohio State Fair wearing Walkmen”. Close enough.

Mark Twain quipped “History doesn’t repeat itself. But it does rhyme.”

AI systems, which aren’t really AI so much as they are next-generation search engines, are the next thing in a long line of pessimistic takes, hot takes, and punditry.

I’ve been asked about ChatGPT and things like it for years. And every time I come away uninterested.

Have Roombas replaced vacuums? Have phones — in any generation — replaced the desire to meet people? Has email ceased the operation of parcels and paper delivery (and has the USPS ever not been in some state of disarray?)?

Has grocery delivery shut down grocery stores? Have Kindles closed libraries? Have cars, try as their insufferable mechanics might, eliminated bicycles? Has Wikipedia replaced the need for any other kind of encyclopedia on the planet or doomed children to never write an original thought?

Technology is best when it supplements human endeavors. And in some cases, yes, it does “destroy” jobs. There are far fewer clerks and secretaries today whose entire job was sorting and filing papers. I doubt anyone, particularly women, would suggest we’re better off returning to that.

My dad once remarked, “I wish computers had never been invented.” His thinking was guided by the fact he didn’t know how to use one. Nor did he want to learn how.

So to avoid that fate I’ve been poking at AI systems the past few weeks with Bing, Notion, Craft, and ChatPGT-adjacent services like stable diffusion. I am not yet all that impressed. The other day I needed a stock photo of a girl staring at a closet full of toys and school supplies. The image I got was interesting, but it wasn’t realistic on account she looked plastic and had no face or hands. Oops.

But I was thinking of a Thomas Jefferson quote about Americans living an idyllic life on farmsteads and his wariness toward cities. I couldn’t remember the words exactly, but I could remember I had read it somewhere. I asked, “What was Jefferson’s quote about farms and cities?” And it gave me the exact quote, and a rare citation to his journal on the state of Virginia:

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”

— Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

Of course AI will get better, as these things always do. But there is also this belief that comes around with any technology that it will completely consume us. Who knows, maybe this will be the time. But AI is only as smart as the people operating online. To say that AI will take over from here, as if it’s scheduled for Thursday at 6 o’clock, assumes no books will ever need written again. No shows produced, no movies filmed, no stories reported, no photos taken, no hearings held or juries deliberating. AI has it from here!

Maybe. Maybe someday. But a more likely scenario is what has played out since the invention of the wheel: a technology will take some tasks away and free up time so people can put their energy and creativity into something else.

What, I don’t know. What would you do if after a while you didn’t have to write code for navigation menus, or write up a list of meeting notes?

But I’m not convinced yet any machine model can create music as moving as Bach, or lead as thoughtfully as Lincoln, or write as witty as Aaron Sorkin.

Someone asked me a long time ago if I was worried that some AI thing would take over the job of designing websites or making graphics. I said I wasn’t because they weren’t very good. But even if they got good, people wouldn’t be very good at applying them for the simple reason you can’t teach someone to have good taste. Like how not everyone who picks up a hammer is automatically a carpenter or everyone with a copy of Microsoft Word is a National Book Award winner. And I think your local restaurant with the dinky Wix or Squarespace website shows that every time you think, “Why doesn’t this website just show me the menu sized for my phone?” Because the person behind it applied it wrong. Like hammering a screw.

I’ve seen things people try to do with Canva, and I’m never impressed. Neither are most people who look at them, because we can all sense when the coffee shop or yoga studio feels like every other coffee shop or yoga studio we’ve ever been to.

I’d argue, too, that if AI took over every bit of advertising and brand writing or whatever the hell it is I do these days, advertisers and companies will sour on that quickly simply because everyone will appear the same. If McDonald’s looks and behaves just like Burger King, I’m guessing some smart person will point out they need to change. And they’ll make a lot of money in the process.

Kids will just have to be smarter about something else

I am somewhat worried about the impact on students. I suppose they’re hurting no one but themselves, but I think we’ve seen this before. Even among my generation it was, “What are you going to do when you don’t have a calculator in your pocket?” Well, we put a calculator in everyone’s pocket. But knowing my multiplication tables makes me a better person.

I suspect the same will be said for English and research classes now. Students who choose to ignore exercising their minds and developing connections will be a bit like people who go to the gym but don’t ever push themselves and spend most of their time staring at their phones: they’ll be kinda worse off, unfit, and lulled into a sense they did something when they didn’t.

But like when Wikipedia arrived and everyone said my generation wouldn’t be able to do anything because it made stuff too easy and we’d just copy word-for-word, we made systems to catch it and the kids carried on. Sometimes I suspect we think kids should have to do hard things simply because we had to and now we resent they don’t. Every generation has done that. But every new generation has had plenty to worry about, like, waves around the heat death of the universe.

Perhaps our best proof of this comes from the military: for ages someone figured out how to counter your pointy stick, then your arrow, then your big rock, then your bomb, and so on. In the 80s when Reagan pushed for the “Star Wars” missile defense system it was assumed it wouldn’t mean much because as soon as we made it the Soviets would just figure out a way to evade the shield. So it goes with AI and deepfakes: I suspect we’ll figure out some way of algorithmically identifying phonies, like we do with jewels, money, and Oakleys.

Writers can stop now, the internet is full

For now, the biggest worry seems to be among the “SEO writers”, the people producing gobs of banal posts about mundane topics, like vacuums and printers. These are often the “clerical workers” of today, and they don’t add much. These are people who just sorta assemble or rearrange existing knowledge. We’ve all encountered these posts clearly written by someone who isn’t a native speaker, like the local plumber who hired some Indian firm to pump their site full of half-baked posts about clogs or whatever.

These posts come across vapid and ineffectual, and you feel like you’ve wasted your time. I’m not sure anyone can make good arguments for saving that kind of work. But for now they exist because people are trying to play to an algorithm cheaply and with a shortcut (usually Indian or Filipino labor).

I have a couple of these clients where the goal is just to rank. My worst work is when I’m just re-assembling thoughts. My best work is when I’m finding new research, old stories, making new pathways, and connecting undirected thoughts that haven’t been made before. Sometimes, I think, the results are impressive.

But one thing I’ve learned is the shortcuts don’t work. Just this week I had to have the same conversation I’ve had seemingly hundreds of times: just because you “wrote a blog” doesn’t mean crap to anyone. Starbucks is full of people working on their novel. So what?

We’ve seen this story unfold before, too, where years ago everyone was up in arms of “story spinners”. Give a bot 1,200 words on pancake mixes and it’ll spin up fifteen blog posts all a little different but roughly the same. That fizzled real fast because at the end of the day, humans seek out humane relationships. And shortcuts rarely work well, or at least not for long.

I have to assume, too, that search engines like Google and Bing aren’t going to be around forever if the internet is flooded with AI-generated re-hashes of things already on the Internet. That strikes me as bad for users, bad for business, and bad for profits.

Perhaps someday we will live in our WALL-E world. But I’m sure as we get there someone will complain loudly about it. We just have to capable of handling it. So far, we’ve show mixed results as humans. Music is still with us. Social media algorithms are problematic. We still strive to communicate. Deepfakes will be a problem in future elections. The kids are okay, but they also have problems. Don’t we all. I doubt AI is the source of, or solution to, all our problems.


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Photo of Justin Harter

About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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